Damien Echols: How death row prepared me for my new life

Since averting execution in 2011, I’ve taken lessons from those dark times -- to forge a new career and help others

Topics: Wrongful Conviction, Prison, Criminal Justice, Criminal Justice System, meditation, Death row, Health Care, Buddhism, Editor's Picks, West Memphis Three,

Damien Echols: How death row prepared me for my new lifeDamien Echols (Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

After spending 18 years in prison for murders I didn’t commit, I walked off of death row one year and 10 months ago. I know it’s this amount of time because at least once a week someone will stop me and ask, “So, how long have you been out now?” In some ways that year and 10 months seems like it’s been a very, very long time. In other ways it has passed in the blink of an eye.

I’ve barely had time to rest for more than a handful of days since I’ve been out. While on death row I wrote a book called “Life After Death,” that was published by Blue Rider Press soon after my release. Almost immediately I was on the road doing book signings and talks. And then the documentary that my wife, Lorri, and I produced — most of which was also done while I was still on death row — came out. We traveled from state to state, theater to theater, screening the film and answering the audience’s questions. We’ve also undertaken a speaking tour, going from school to school to discuss the case with law students, criminal justice majors and future journalists. Rarely has there been a moment when I wasn’t moving.

I’ve carried a great deal of what I learned on death row with me out into the world. When I was sitting in that cell I never realized the extent to which the things I had to learn would play a part in my future. I didn’t realize I was practicing, training and getting ready for the next chapter of my life. In fact, sometimes I thought I was just getting ready to die.

Here I sit writing this in my new office in Salem, Mass. My home. I’ve christened this place, my work area, the Hermetic Reiki Center. And in this place I teach people the things I learned that helped me to survive the brutality of death row. This is my passion. It’s also where I am truly myself, no longer one of the “West Memphis 3″ or “Inmate SK-931.

I’ve heard people on television and in society complain about how wonderful it is in prison, about how great the healthcare is. That while people “out here” struggle to get or maintain health insurance, prisoners are given top of the line healthcare completely free of charge. And, unfortunately, I know that’s completely and absolutely untrue. In fact, things like healthcare are almost completely nonexistent in prison. Especially on death row. After all, why waste time and energy taking care of someone you plan on killing?

There were times when I was on death row that I was in physical misery. At one point I was so severely beaten by guards that I pissed blood. I had nerve damage in my teeth from being hit in the mouth. And there were nights when I was so sick that I doubted I’d see morning come.

Over the years I had to learn any technique I could to not only preserve my sanity, but also cope with the pain, physical illness and trauma. That’s what eventually lead me to Qi Gung and Reiki. Both are forms of energy work, one Chinese, the other Japanese. I also eventually received ordination in the Rinzai Zen tradition of Japanese Buddhism. It’s the same tradition that used to train the samurai in ancient Japan. By the time I was released from prison I was doing anywhere from five to seven hours of meditation a day.

An infamous Western mystic once said that our spiritual practice should have the aim of religion, but the method of science. I subscribe to that philosophy wholeheartedly. I didn’t turn to meditation and energy work out of hope that I’d find nirvana in some distant future. I turned to it because I needed help dealing with the pain and suffering of everyday existence in a living hell. Those techniques I had to learn out of necessity to survive and deal with pain are the same techniques I now teach to other people. It’s my passion in life. It’s what I love doing.

When I teach these methods of meditation, I avoid the pitfalls of religious dogma. Instead, I focus on the science. I explain how our minds communicate with our bodies through chemicals called neuropeptides, and we can program these neuropeptides to speed up the healing process in our body with simple visualization and breathing exercises. I want to make it accessible to people of all belief systems, not only Buddhists.

All in all, it’s a very rewarding life to be able to not only help others, but to also share with them the things that excite me. The things that brought light to me when I was in the darkest of places. And after all, we can all use a little light from time to time.

Damien Echols is the author of Life after Death, a memoir about his 18 years on Arkansas's death row for a crime he didn't commit. He now teaches meditation classes at the Hermetic Reiki Center in Salem, Mass.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>