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Omnivorous Reader

Letters from Death Row

Finding purpose behind bars

By Anne Blythe

Much has been written about how the art of letter writing has been in decline for years — except in prisons. Behind the barbed fences, putting pen to paper remains a vital connection to the world outside the prison walls. It was one such letter that launched Rap and Redemption on Death Row: Seeking Justice and Finding Purpose Behind Bars, a book by Alim Braxton and Mark Katz.

Braxton, born Michael Jerome Jackson on June 1, 1974, has been in prison since he was 19 years old, incarcerated more than a quarter-century of that time on North Carolina’s death row. His co-author, Katz, is a music professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who started the Carolina Hip Hop Institute in the summer of 2019.

Braxton, who chose the Muslim name Alim in prison, read a newspaper story about the program and wrote a letter to Katz in August 2019 asking for help. Rap music had been a big part of Braxton’s life, even before prison. He had been writing and recording lyrics over the phone but was not pleased with the sound quality.

Let’s get this out of the way: Braxton killed three people and robbed two others. He accepts responsibility and apologizes for killing Emmanuel Ogauyo, Donald Bryant and Dwayne Caldwell, as he does for robbing Susan Indula and Lindanette Walker.

“I know my situation may seem despairing and perhaps unlike anyone you’ve worked with before, but despite the circumstances I still have faith and I still have a dream, and I believe that with the right sound and someone who knows what to do with my vocals I can accomplish something BIG!” Braxton wrote to Katz, who held on to the letter for a month.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to offer my help,” Katz writes in the preface to the book. “I didn’t know him, and after all, this request was coming from a convicted murderer.” He decided to respond anyway.

“I was intrigued by his passion. I also saw an earnestness is his neatly handwritten letter that amplified the sincerity of his words,” Katz writes.

That led to a relationship and the exchange of many letters to build a team of people who worked with Braxton to record his first album — the first-ever recorded from death row — and to this book.

“It wasn’t long into our correspondence that I came to believe that Alim’s letters were worth preserving and making public, and that is what spurred me to suggest the possibility of a book,” Katz writes. “Earlier in my career, I had spent many hours in archives reading correspondence by famous musicians. I would count myself lucky anytime I found a single paragraph of interest out of a batch of letters. That is not the case with Alim’s letters.”

Braxton’s blunt but colorful accounts of how he got to prison and his life inside it are contemplative and eye-opening. He gives readers a glimpse of the inmate hierarchy, the violence, the loss of dignity, privacy and rights, the code of survival and his path to redemption, love, a wife and even hope for the future despite his circumstances.

His rap, which is interspersed with the narrative, is personal and wide-ranging. His lyrics offer views of the George Floyd protests, COVID, pop culture and much more. In telling his story, Braxton wants to make sure that the stories of others — those on death row who maintain their innocence and have cases he believes involve wrongful convictions — are lifted up with his rap.

Braxton grew up in a rough-and-tumble Raleigh neighborhood about 2 miles from Central Prison. There are times he dreams of nearby places he visited as a boy or the rolling Dix Park across the busy boulevard from the prison cell “the size of a bathroom” he now lives in.

“I have fond memories of my childhood growing up in Raleigh, but as I wrote in my song, ‘Unremarkable,’ it’s also where I learned ‘to thug it properly.’ Stealing, fighting and drinking were rites of passage in my neighborhood,” Braxton writes. “My descent into crime didn’t happen overnight. I got my feet wet shoplifting around the age of 11. By the time I was 16 I had gone to prison for two months for stealing a car. I soaked up more criminal knowledge while inside, and after my release, the front gate became a revolving door, with three dozen arrests and three additional stints in prison.”

In vivid detail, Braxton goes on to describe his first time with a gun, his move from a pistol to a sawed-off shotgun, the first time he killed a person, and the almost out-of-body experience he had during those times. It was as if he was playing a role in a movie or a TV show, he wrote. He says the adage “the decisions you make today determine your tomorrow” rolls around in his head, especially when he thinks about the 1993 robbery spree where he claimed the lives of two people.

“Why didn’t I just leave at some point during that February night in 1993?” Braxton writes. “The truth is that I was afraid that I would look weak. I know now that it’s not weak to walk away from something you don’t want to be involved in. . . . Not walking away was a pivotal decision that changed the course of my life forever.”

Not walking away from a conflict in prison is what landed him on death row. He had been spared the death penalty and given two life sentences plus 110 years for the 1993 robbery-turned-kidnapping-turned-murder. Then he stabbed a fellow inmate to death.

Although North Carolina has had a de facto moratorium on the death penalty since 2006 while lawsuits make their way through the courts, the possibility of executions starting again looms.

“The true reality of life on Death Row is that every day is a life of fear, regret and humiliation . . . ,” Braxton wrote in a newspaper letter to the editor published in the book. “I live every day with the fear of standing before my God and accounting for my deeds.”  PS

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.