There were days when Damien Echols stared at the walls of his cell on death row wondering if he might die from exhaustion before the authorities finally executed him for a grisly triple homicide that prosecutors in Arkansas claimed he and two friends committed in 1993.
After 18 years locked away in a 9-by-12-foot concrete prison cell, Echols knew he was running out of time.
“I was in pretty drastic shape,” Echols, 44, tells PEOPLE. “I was losing my eyesight, my hair was falling out and I’d lost so much weight. I hadn’t seen sunlight or experienced any real human contact for almost a decade. I was physically deteriorating.”
So what kept him alive long enough to strike a plea bargain with prosecutors in 2011 and walk away from death row as a free man?
According to Echols, it was “magick.”
And now seven years after his release from prison he’s written a book—High Magick: A Guide To The Spiritual Practices That Saved My Life On Death Row—to explain how it works and try to remove some of the stigma attached to it.
“So few people even understand what it is,” says Echols. “I spent 20 years of my life in prison fighting to stay alive in part because people didn’t understand what magick was. People think it’s synonymous with Satanism. But it’s what saved my sanity when I was in there, it’s what kept me together.”
It’s also what proved to be his undoing. At his trial, prosecutors insisted that the long-haired teen, who wore black clothing, loved heavy metal music and was fascinated with the occult, murdered three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark., during a satanic ritual.
Despite no physical evidence or witnesses, Echols was sentenced to death for the murders, while friends Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley received life sentences. Not long afterwards, the ninth grade dropout began using his time locked away in a prison cell to study spiritual pursuits. He often devoured five books a week on various subjects and spent hours each day sitting on the concrete floor doing Zen meditation.
Eventually, his studies led him to paganism, Gnostic Christianity, Taoist energy practices and esoteric Judaism—and Echols found himself captivated by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the 19th-century occult group whose members included W.B. Yeats, Bram Stoker and Arthur Conan Doyle.
He soon began spending most of each day practicing the group’s intricately-choreographed ceremonies in his cell, tracing pentagrams in the air and invoking the names of angels. Before long, he began to feel his mind and spirit break free from the confines of his prison cell.
“I focused on it non-stop,” he recalls. “It got to the point where days went by and I didn’t even think about prison because I was so focused and excited about what I was doing that I’d go to bed hungry to do more. I can’t even begin to describe how devastating prison is to the psyche and emotions. But this allowed me to regain my equilibrium.”
Meanwhile, the plight of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley—who had long maintained their innocence and had become known as the West Memphis Three—began attracting international attention thanks to a series of HBO documentaries on their case.
Together with his wife, Lorri Davis—and a handful of celebrity supporters that included Johnny Depp, Natalie Maines, director Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins—they began putting pressure on the authorities to either overturn their convictions or grant them a new trial.
They realized the odds were stacked against them, but they knew the clock was ticking. And by 2010 those close to Echols—who was growing increasingly frail with each passing month—feared he didn’t have much time left.
All Echols could do, he recalls, was to keep mustering up enough energy to carry on with his “magick” practice.
“Lorri and I decided we were both going to do this every single day, drawing as much energy as we possibly could and program it with the intention that I would be freed from prison,” he says. “We didn’t know how it was going to work. We just let the energy go and do its job. Within one year, I walked out of prison.”
The trio was freed in August 2011 after the discovery of new DNA evidence helped bolster their claims of innocence. Authorities in Arkansas offered the group a surprise, rarely-used plea deal that allowed them to maintain their innocence while also acknowledging that prosecutors had evidence to convict them.
After his release, Echols spent years avoiding talking about the spiritual practice that he now admits helped saved his life.
“I was really, really gun-shy. Whenever I’d talk about it, I’d always look over my shoulder to check and see if anyone could hear me,” recalls Echols, who now travels the country teaching “magick” workshops and is busy working on a follow-up book on the subject. “But I eventually realized I had to get over that hurdle—because if you give up the things you love out of fear then you’re not really alive.”