H Block

As I stood on the edge of a wide, greening field, one that could easily have accommodated the breaking out of a spontaneous Saturday afternoon touch-football or baseball game, although I doubt that should ever occur here, I  enjoyed the warm breeze brought by the first day of spring.

Juxtiposed against the open blue sky were towers, almost as if I were seeing the workplace of air traffic controllers as they orchestrated jets’ comings and goings, and by such thousands of travelers.  But they held controllers of a different sort who guarded the comings and goings of hundreds of tenants only there to be processed through this place to their long term residences, or to monitor the millings around of the few hundred who stay there long term.

I could hear voices coming from the building in front of me, like children in a schoolroom, but the pitch too low and all male.  Their shouts did not have the happy excitement of young kids, but a dullness of despondent men with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

On the side of the building pasty-looking dwellers were outside breathing in the fresh air, each one from his own small fenced-in recreation yard.  Someone pointed out in the background F-block, my state’s super max prison where the “worst of the worst” most violent prisoners live after they’ve proven they can’t be held anywhere else in the state.

But where my feet are now is just a few yards outside the execution chamber.  “You can come in if you want,” our guide offers, and I follow. I believe in the death penalty, always have. I have no ethical anxiety about being here.

So I take a seat on the second of the three church pews available for viewers. Not many seats, but how many would you need for any given execution? A very few family members, a couple of officials, some press, maybe a cadre of  prison staff, 20 people or so would fit.

Through a glass panel with the curtains opened I’m staring at a hospital gurney with no sides. One edge has an arm rest, sort of like a tray. There are straps on the gurney. I see in my mind’s eye a person lying there about to be put to death. It is a somber place and a thoughtful moment. There is no joking around. I am keenly aware that in the building adjacent and attached to this one there are 56 men awaiting their fates; the men whose voices I had heard earlier.

Actually, there are 54 on Death Row. One is in a prison hospital down south in our state, not expected to return. In other words, he will likely die a natural death before his execution can be carried out. Another, our state’s most notorious prisioner, while technically a Death Row inmate, has shown himself so violent both out of and in custody that he now sits in F-block across the way.

We saw the little cell where the inmate is brought four hours before the scheduled execution. It’s where he eats his last meal.  Some executions are carried out just on time, others are delayed for hours, and every now and then one is cancelled due to a stay of execution and rescheduled.

We saw the tiny closet where the meds are pushed into the veins of the inmate. It is done through three ports in the wall. None of the observers sees who delivers the lethal doses. There are several people behind the window who are overseeing the execution. “Pay no attention to  the man behind the curtain,” I hear the line from the Wizard of Oz playing in my head.

Before we left, some of us sat in “Old Sparky,” the no-longer-used electric chair. It was really small. Not what I expected. It was kind of comfortable. It had been built by an inmate in the carpentry shop many years ago. It was varnished to a high shine. Last used for executions in 2001, creepy is the best word for it.

I’m glad I went to Death Row. Although I don’t think I would want to witness an execution, it didn’t change my opinion about supporting it as a penalty. I didn’t forget what  kinds of things the inmates in H-block did to land themselves there. Some crimes deserve the ultimate penalty.

But I’m not a monster. I feel empathy, even for monsters, the worst of the worst. I don’t think I would do well working in corrections.  I’m not suggesting that those who carry out the death penalty are monsters. They are brave. They do what the justice system requires of them. They do their jobs.

My visit to “the Row” made me appreciate my own freedom more than ever.




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