An Insider’s Narrative of the Carceral State

Lyle C. May

Haymarket Books (16 April 2024)

Trade paper • ISBN-13: 9781642599718 •US $22.95 • 6 in x 9 in • 240 pgs.


A first-hand account of the death penalty’s wholly destructive nature. 

In Witness, Lyle C. May offers a scathing critique of shifts in sentencing laws, prison policies that ensure recidivism, and classic “tough on crime” views that don’t make society safer or prevent crime. These insightful and analytical essays explore capital punishment, life imprisonment, prison education, prison journalism, as well as what activism from inside looks like on the road toward abolishing the carceral state. 

No outside journalist can adequately report what happens inside death row or what it is like to live through thirty-three executions of people you know. May’s grounded writings in Witness challenge the myths, misconceptions, and misinformation about the criminal legal system and death in prison, guiding readers on a journey through North Carolina’s congregate death row, where the author has spent over twenty years of his life. 

With a foreword by activist, lawyer, and professor Danielle Purifoy, and drawing on the work of Angela Y. Davis, Mariame Kaba, and other abolitionist scholars, Witness shows there is more to life under the sentence of death than what is portrayed in crime dramas or mass media. Lyle C. May’s life, journalism, and activism are a guidebook to abolitionism in practice.


“Lyle May has written a powerful, must-read book for those embedded in the struggle for freedom, justice, and abolition. Witness is essential reading.”

Mariame Kaba

With fierce beauty, Witness brilliantly chronicles the everyday and intimate layers of life on death row in a US prison. May’s detailed reporting – and, as powerfully, his critical analysis of the prison industrial complex – illuminates crucial pathways to strengthen our movements for healing and liberation for all.”

Erica R. Meiners, co-editor of The Long Term and co-author of Abolition. Feminism. Now.

“Lyle May is a voice for the voiceless. He draws the reader into his experiences and perspectives as a man living with others condemned to death. Remarkably circumspect, he explores ineffective and deadening attempts to deal with crime and criminals that do not redeem the lost and forgotten. Whether or not you agree with him, it is important for us to listen to him. There are some passages in this book that may touch your soul.”

Alice Lynd, co-author with Staughton Lynd of Moral Injury and Nonviolent Resistance: Breaking the Cycle of Violence in the Military and Behind Bars

“From death row, May not only presents a searing, unflinching and damning first-hand examination of North Carolina’s death row, but also walks the reader through the decades of punitive policies that have built this house of hopelessness.”

Victoria Law, journalist and author of “Prisons Make Us Safer” & 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration


Lyle C. May is a prison journalist, abolitionist, and Ohio University Alum currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sociology, with a criminology major. He is a member of the Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society and the Author’s Guild. Lyle’s writings have appeared in Scalawag Magazine, Perspectives on Politics, The Intercept, America Magazine, Inside Higher Ed, and elsewhere. Lyle is also a coauthor of Inside: Voices from Death Row (Scuppernong Editions, 2022) and contributor to Right Here, Right Now: Life Stories from America’s Death Row (Duke University Press, 2021). He routinely lectures to high school and university students, church groups, and community organizations on the politics, policies, and experiences of mass incarceration. As he pursues every legal avenue to overturn his wrongful conviction and death sentence, Lyle advocates for greater access to higher education in prison. 


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