TRCH Priscilla

Life on Death Row: "I witnessed two executions – it’s not a pleasant experience at all."

20 July 19 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Fabrice Gagos

A practising Buddhist priest for over four decades, Kobutsu Malone established the Dharma Song Zendo in New York State’s notorious Sing Sing Prison, and serves as a death row chaplain. Now in his sixties, we talked to Malone as he reflected on a life spent trying to reform America’s broken justice system through Buddhist teachings…

As a seven-year old saying goodbye to Nottingham, Kobutsu Shindo Malone – born Kevin Malone – would never have imagined the incomprehensible life he was about to embark upon. He survived Catholic clerical sexual abuse at his New Jersey High School, was raped and beaten in prison at the age of eighteen, and lived as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.

“Prison is abominable. It fosters violence and neglect. It’s a very, very brutal place,” Kobutsu Shindo Kevin Malone, the Nottingham-born Zen Buddhist priest tells me. He’s talking from his house in Maine, New England; the emotion in his gruff, raspy voice is palpable, even over the phone. “I was beaten and raped while I was in prison. It was extremely traumatic.”

Malone is referring to his 1968 arrest in Washington DC when, while visiting a friend’s house, he was charged with being present in an illegal establishment and possession of implements of a crime. The event acted as a catalyst to his life-long association with the American prison system. “I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he recalls. “A couple of hours either way and I would never have been involved.” Suffering physical and sexual attacks within the first 72 hours of his fourteen-day jail sentence, Malone deliberately stuck his foot into an electric gate to access the relative safety of the prison hospital.

Malone’s life began in Nottingham, where he attended St. Theresa’s School in Aspley. “I was only seven years old when I left, but I still remember Nottingham,” he reminiscences, “especially Nottingham Castle.” From Nottingham, Malone’s parents relocated to The Bronx, New York in 1957, where Malone survived Catholic clerical sexual abuse at Bergen Catholic High School.

Jump forward more than two decades, and Malone has firmly established himself as an activist in some of the biggest social movements of the seventies and eighties. Taking part in civil rights and anti-war activism, Malone was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, finding Buddhism along the way and studying under several preeminent Buddhist teachers like Chögyam Trungpa and Eido Tai Shimano.

1992 saw him establish the Dharma Song Zendo at New York’s Sing Sing Prison, which was notorious for its harsh conditions. “It’s the second oldest prison in New York State, and it’s an absolute hellhole,” Malone tells me. “Prison conditions hadn’t changed. It was as brutal as it was when I was in jail.”

Over the next nine years, he volunteered as a Zen priest, bringing dharma – a fundamental Buddhist doctrine that constitutes a universal truth to all individuals at all times – to the prisoners there. “I was giving them hope and dignity,” Malone remembers. “It provided them with a stable platform to examine their lives and question their actions.” Malone went on to co-found the Engaged Zen Foundation, which aimed to foster contemplative meditative practice in prisons, developing monastic alternative sentencing and post-release programmes.

Of course, Malone’s time volunteering at one of America’s most notorious prisons didn’t pass without incident. “I had a couple of scary moments with particular prisoners who had psychological issues coming up against me,” he tells me, “but I had a lot more issues with the guards. They tend to be very brutal and extremely paranoid. There are twenty prisoners to every guard, and they’re only armed with a billy club and a radio. They’re dealing with all kinds of people, including murderers.”

As the time ticks by, hours turn to minutes and it gets to the point where you’re actually watching people legally kill another human being

It was in 1996 that Malone first got involved with death row chaplaincy, when he served as a spiritual advisor for Jusan Frankie Parker. Awaiting execution for the murder of his former wife’s parents, Parker’s case had drawn attention from the Dalai Lama, who wrote to oppose the sentence, and fellow Buddhist Richard Gere, who had attempted to visit Parker on death row. “It’s very difficult dealing with death row prisoners. You’re the only friend they have,” Malone tells me. “They’re surrounded by men who want to kill them, and eventually do – legally. I witnessed two executions, both by lethal injection. It’s not a pleasant experience at all.”

Moments before his death, Parker invoked his Buddhist beliefs with his final words, “I seek refuge in the Buddha. I seek refuge in the Dharma. I seek refuge in the Sangha.” Malone recalls an interaction with one of the guards present at the execution who had volunteered for the duty for extra money. “After sitting there for the final few hours, watching and listening to us interact with one another, he decided that he would never, ever do it again.”

The extent to which Malone is involved in the final hours of the death row victims differed depending on their needs. “It’s my policy not to initiate contact – that has to come from their side. I’m not out there looking for people on death row,” he says. “I offer them correspondence, literature and visits if I’m able. It all depends where they are. The two executions I’ve witnessed have been in Florida and Arkansas.”

The second execution he witnessed was that of Amos Lee King Jr., who had been found guilty of the rape and murder of 68-year-old Natalie “Tilly” Brady in 1977. On the final hours spent with a prisoner before their execution, Malone tells me, “I just try and be the very best friend I can in what is a very, very tense situation. Sitting with somebody who’s only got hours to live is not very much fun at all. As the time ticks by, hours turn to minutes and it gets to the point where you’re actually watching people legally kill another human being. Some of them maintain their innocence right to the end, and some don’t. Some confess to their murders, some deny it right until the needle goes in.” King Jr. was firmly in the latter category, ending his life by saying, “I would like the governor and the family to know I am an innocent man, and the state had evidence to that effect. I'm sorry for the victim's family, for all the things we have gone through…” King continued to talk but, having had his microphone turned off, those present could only see his mouth move as he was administered a lethal injection.

As someone who has witnessed executions first hand, Malone’s thoughts on the capital punishment are firmly set. “I don’t subscribe to the death penalty at all. I don’t think it does any good. I think it brutalises not only the prisoner, but also everyone who is involved.”

As our conversation draws to its conclusion, I tell Malone that, from growing up in Nottingham, he’s led a remarkably eventful life during which he’s been exposed to the absolute limits of the human experience. “I just did my best, and it is what it is,” he replies. “I’m an old man, and I can’t go to prisons any more – I’m pretty much retired. I’m still alive, though. It ain't over yet.”