Echols Talks Technology at Memphis Conference

By Andy Meek

The first time Damien Echols saw a computer, it was 1986 – eight years before he and two others were convicted of murder and found themselves branded as the West Memphis Three.

Echols, who spent 18 years in prison and almost a decade in solitary confinement, wasn’t in Memphis Monday to talk about that part of his story, though. He was a key presence at the inaugural “Everywhere Else” startup conference to talk about how, for almost 20 years, he was frozen in time, disconnected from the world’s rapid pace of technological innovation.

And how disconcerting it was, at first, to be thrown into it head first after his release from prison in 2011.

That’s partly because of the nature of his time behind bars.

“There’s no momentum in prison,” Echols said. “Nothing changes. Noon, 1 o’clock – they’re the same as midnight. The Fourth of July is the same as Christmas.”

He had a TV that only picked up basic cable but with a signal strength that was no match for bad weather. Same for a small AM/FM radio.

At one point, his wife (who married him in prison) was coming to see him for three hours every Friday. It was one of his few links to the outside world and to what was changing – the introduction of mp3 players, of downloading, of social media, and more.

“She would try to explain things to me, but I’d really have no idea what she’s talking about,” Echols said.

In Echols’ telling, the TV is a bit like the comforting blanket the Peanuts character Linus clings to. There’s a lot of screaming, a lot of noise in prison, and the constant drone of the TV helps to shut it off, make it tolerable.

In a way, the TV becomes like “your friend,” and people end up spending all week waiting for their favorite show.

Echols became fixated on the news in prison. That was his favorite part about TV, partly a function of being on death row. Now, politics actually mattered to him – that whoever happens to be the governor, for example, now has a direct impact on his life.

He and the other members of the West Memphis Three were released in late 2011 after agreeing to make so-called Alford Pleas. From there, Echols' life went from zero to 60 in a matter of days.

First culture shock: he moved from solitary confinement to New York City.

“Everything there is a million times faster than it is anywhere else in the world,” he said. “Everything was so amazing.”

He’d tell himself he’d rest after he’d explored and seen everything in a certain part of the city – a bargain that’s difficult to keep in New York.

Right now, he’s working on a new book, one that he’s writing long-hand.

“The Kindle feels empty to me,” Echols said of Amazon’s e-reader tablet. “It doesn’t give you that great feel when you hold a book.”

He’s given iPhone games a try – “Angry Birds was interesting for a while.”

And he loves Twitter, which his book editor encouraged him to sign up for to help promote himself.

“Twitter feels like poetry,” he said, referencing the limitation of haiku that's akin to the parameters of Twitter. “You have to count out everything you’re doing, every letter, make it all count.”

Hollywood director Peter Jackson brought him to New Zealand not long after he was released. Echols joked about how the director was in a hurry to help Echols make up for all the time he’d missed.

Echols went paragliding in New Zealand and ate lunch with Jackson at a volcano.

He enjoyed it, but Echols concedes all he really wanted to do was read a book and have some hot chocolate and go to bed.