Death Row Visit-United Methodist Reflections

by | Sep 9, 2015 | Prison Reform/Death Penalty Task Force

The Desert Southwest Conference Board of Church & Society has begun a new subgroup, with Rev. George Cushman taking the lead, focusing on the Conference work regarding the death penalty. On August 21, 2015 they visited the death row and execution chamber in Florence. The following are the reflections of those who attended.

Dave Ryan, Paradise Valley

I had a [fill in the blank] day on Friday in Florence, AZ standing in the middle of Death Row. Lots of conflicting emotions and thoughts from being part of a tour of death row and the death house in Florence. I personally am against the death penalty and I realize this is a very divisive topic in the USA and in Arizona but I wanted to see what it was like first hand. As a leader of my Church & Society Ministry Team I get asked my position and why, and so when offered to learn from what I felt was a rare opportunity I jumped at the opening to attend. We were guided by a professional team led by the Director of the Department of Corrections and felt completely safe throughout the morning. I felt and saw the very high level of discipline and cleanliness at every moment in the facilities and for that matter anywhere on the roads of the complex. The Director spoke and answered many questions about the efforts that were made to engage the inmates in behavior improvement and education programs throughout the complex and including on death row. That said … you or nobody you know would ever want to live here … this is a hard cold place. Current sentencing policies result in a total Arizona prison population of approximately 42,000 with a churn of 20,000 new and 19,000 leaving every year (most stays are only 6-18 months). He has ideas to slow the growth and potentially reverse the growth through addressing causes of recidivism but it requires policy changes at the Legislature. Also, backing off truth in sentencing laws (that has driven up populations), sentencing reform in general, and the death penalty itself are all within the power of the legislature and governor to change but in Arizona’s political climate it is easy to talk about but politically charged. I came away feeling we have good people running our prison system but improvements to the system require legislative action. Anyone who wants to know more or talk send me a message.

Rev. Nancy Cushman, North Scottsdale

We toured Death Row today & saw where executions take place with faith leaders & members of the state representatives. Dept of Corrections director Charles Ryan was a very good host with an informative presentation. He shared the entire process involved in carrying out the death penalty. The statement that stays with me is that 19,000 people are released from AZ prisons & 20,000 are sent to AZ prisons every year. Still processing the experience. The visit was arranged by the Arizona Faith Network & Death Penalty Alternatives for AZ.

Dick Spining, Safford

One of my fundamental beliefs is that whether we oppose or support the death penalty, we ALL need to very seriously discuss the contemporary context in which the death penalty is implemented. Almost every procedure that was described to us on “death row” and at the site of execution was in response to the whirlwind of political, legal and moral issues that keep implementation of the death penalty in a constant state of turmoil. Heart-felt conservative Christian apologists for the death penalty recognize this. Progressive Christian opponents of the death penalty recognize this. Two things I learned/observed during our visit were to me of particular significance. 17.4 years from sentencing to execution on the average!! And the presentation made by Director Ryan on the complex and chillingly precise protocol that is meticulously followed during an execution. Both, in my opinion, are profound testimony to the fact that the system does not bring justice. We need, as a society to come to a much broader consensus on what justice is…for the victims of horrible crimes and for the perpetrators of horrible crimes. I am opposed to the death penalty. But more important than imposing my point of view is being part of working towards this consensus in every way possible.

Billie K. Fidlin, Phoenix

Today is August 26th, several days after our visit to death row. I have just posted this on Facebook:  “Prayers for the journalists who were killed this morning in VA. Prayers for a world so broken that so many turn to extreme violence in answer to their personal pain. Last Friday I spent much of the day on death row, as well as in the execution chamber viewing area, with colleagues. I walked away with so many impressions – all of which I’m still processing. What I can say in light of today and so many other sad days – the death penalty is not a deterrent. And if it is simply a legal means for someone to kill someone else for closure, revenge or justice, I think as human beings we are better than that in this country. Having said that, death row was not at all what I thought it to be. There are more freedoms and humane treatments than I ever imagined. That… left me much to think about in terms of justice and redemption in tension with punishment. More important to think about – how can we help our young people develop a tool box where anger and violence are not the first responses… not first, not ever.”

As I continue to reflect on our visit to death row and the execution chamber, what I have to share are the impressions I left with – which were so contrary to what I thought this level of incarceration and punishment were about. The freedoms that death row inmates have – classes for personal development, GED, even anger management. The three levels of behavior which allow the inmate various privileges, including recreation time. The fact that they are able to gather with the 9 pod mates in some grouping level or another. They can have the right to have a job such as washing walls or floors. That the personnel distributing medicine wore a plexiglass mask. The fact that the assistant warden said even though death row inmates are allowed these weekly 9 hours of interaction with one or more persons in classes or recreation, there have been no incidents of violence. Or that Director Ryan believes Arizona has never executed an innocent person. That there are many women employed by the Arizona Department of Corrections at all levels, including wardens. That the female assistant warden we met with carried no weapon and feels safe. But the strongest impressions that haunt me were from our presence in the execution chamber.

Director Ryan took us through the last 35 days of a death row inmate’s life. That starts by being moved from the cell they have lived in for many years, to two cells designated for this last month of life purpose. The prisoner is switched nightly between these two cells. The very last 24 hours of existence – the inmate is moved to the site of the execution grounds – about 2 miles away from where they are incarcerated in Florence. There that person is put into a cage cell – wires and plexiglass. Steel bed, steel desk, steel seat. Little light and such a small area… it feels as though it’s the first casket before the last casket. I prayed over these two cells – it was what I felt called to do. For peace, for humane treatment in those final hours, for God to be with them in their hearts, and for all those who have gone before and all those victimized by their crime.

We saw the gas chamber (5 inmates still can choose to die in that manner according to when they were sentenced), and the room where lethal injection occurs. We were taken step by step through what occurs directly before, and during, the execution, what can be seen, what can’t; what can be heard, and what can’t. I asked Director Ryan, who has witnessed 36 of the last 37 executions in Arizona, what the prisoner’s reactions are as they face their final moments on earth. His response – resignation to the execution.

We are all God’s children. While I recognize intellectually these inmates have been convicted of horrific acts, is this the best we can do as a civilized society? As Christians? WE… are ALL… God’s children. Or aren’t we?

Diane Wilson, Tuscon

I appreciated having this experience – dark as it was. All of us were serious and honoring of what we were learning, I think. I found some of Director Ryan’s opinions interesting. One was his support of alternatives to automatic return to prison when there is an administrative violation of parole (missing a scheduled meeting with the parole officer, for instance). Pima County offers such alternatives; Maricopa County doesn’t. This made me wonder if Director Ryan thinks that increasing the prison population in Arizona isn’t always necessary.

The other statement he made was in answer to the question about what he saw as deterrent to crime. He paused, then said, “Military”. He described the department’s previous Boot Camp for juvenile delinquents which didn’t deter crime like they had supposed. He said he thought if the young men had been required to enter the military after the boot camp that would have provided the necessary discipline for deterrent. There is no proof that this has worked in the past; indeed the military does not necessarily want to have to take on this responsibility. I was hoping Director Ryan might have thought education and drug rehabilitation for example, would be better solutions. Makes me wonder if increasing discipline in the prison system is seen as the answer – with no other consideration for preparing for life when release happens.

Entering the two cells reserved for people 24 hours from execution was a powerful experience. The cells were so completely steel, full of promise of death and grief. I observed that members of our tour group were silent, entered and exited the cells quietly and soberly. I saw many pause and offer prayers. I know I did – for both the future occupants and the correctional officers who will participate in this dreadful fulfillment. Director Ryan declared that no one in Arizona had ever been wrongfully executed. His description of the execution process was sterile, matter of fact and without judgment – in short unholy. Hopefully we all are changed by this experience.

Rev. George Cushman, Scottsdale

My visit to death row was like seeing the white crosses that line the highways. You know something tragic has happened there, but now there is only the symbol to remind us. We enter into the observation room and have a closed curtain before us as we take our seats for a short presentation. Then the curtain opens and through the window we look into the small room where people have drawn their last breaths. We see the empty table neatly made up, leather straps fastened but empty, monitoring equipment placed along the walls, the drug pass-through window-cover closed, all serving as a reminder, symbols of what has happened. Then we turn, and directly behind us is another enclosed area which we discover is the gas chamber. It is an eerily sterile feeling.

The purpose of our visit was not to argue the merits of or reasons against the death penalty, simply to become more aware of what happens to those who are condemned to death row. The presentations were informative, but matter-of-fact. I knew that a person sentenced to death would actually spend a minimum of 13-15 years on death row as the many appeals would process through the courts. No one can be put to death without a warrant from the State Supreme Court. What did amaze me is the State Prison System provides classes and other activities while the prisoners wait for their appeals to be processed.

Certainly, this is just a very quick synopsis of what we saw and talked about. After the visit we went to lunch and debriefed about our experience. There was a lot of discussion about providing rehab, after all this is a correction facility. If we can provide a way to turn lives around, then we might stop the behavior before someone commits a crime that gets them sentenced to death row.

For me, this is only one step or component in responding to those in the general populace of prison. Helping people repent and have their lives go in a new direction is certainly important. But, so is giving people second chances. It seems to always come back to forgiveness and allowing people to create a new future.

One of the most hopeful things I heard is how there are employers in our state that will have prisoners come and work for them during the day. When these prisoners are set to be released, if they have done a good job the employer will hire them, giving them another chance at life.

Dean Richardson, Mesa

On Friday, August 14, 2015, I joined a group of persons on a presentation tour of the facilities associated with persons sentenced to death in Arizona. The group consisted of three general groups of individuals: 1) Representatives from ‘Death Penalty Alternatives’, various Lay and Clergy (mainly UM), and representatives from our State Legislature. The requested purpose of the trip was to expose us to the facilities and processes utilized during the death penalty process.

Director Ryan did a professional presentation and answered most questions that did not either involve information associated to ongoing legal proceedings or discussion of the death penalty itself. One of the Department’s goals was to dispel myths about treatment of persons on death row. As a consequence of legal proceedings, the DOC has implemented several policies and programs that now offer a death row inmate up to 25 hours of ‘out of cell’ time per week. He stated that the usual inmates tenure on death row is 15-17 years; he could have given the department’s programs more definition by associating an inmates participation in a small group as vital to an their mental health during this extended period.

One of the goals of the ‘Death Penalty Alternatives’ was to get more specific information on certain aspects of the process; the procurement and payment of the medical personnel involved in the execution process being a main component of their direction. Director Ryan avoided discussion on this process as was previously agreed.

When some of our questions strayed from the death penalty script, Director Ryan sometimes offered insight into his management of the department. For example, his use of funds for drug offenders is limited to those about to re-enter society, which limits its reach to only about 10% of the population that might be benefitted. He also considers the prison population reflective of racial demographics in AZ and I would question those statistics. I also understand his response that no execution has been performed on an innocent person as I think the Director must believe that the outcome is correct according to standing law for his/her own sanity.

I received a lot of information during the briefing and am thankful that I was able to attend. I appreciate the time that was expended in setting up the visit and am grateful for the time devoted to the tour by the Department of Corrections. I found the institution and process very professional and sterile.

Rev. Stephen Govett, Phoenix

The emotions I expected were not to be had. Upon our de-briefing I realized that I was not the only who felt this way, but I digress.

Our day started with a tour of death row, at the state penitentiary. We were guided by correction officers through a series of locking gates until we arrived at “the command center” a sterile room overlooking the different wings of death row. We were greeted by the assistant warden who introduced us to Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan. A man in an orange jumpsuit mops the floors underneath. We hear about the daily schedules they follow and the policies and procedures that are in place. How important it is for socialization and when good behavior is rewarded they are treated to outdoor recreation in a 10X10 enclosed concrete area. A nurse in full body armor administers meds to the inmates below. We are taken through a time line of execution: 45 days out the warrant is read to them; 10 days out their affairs must be in order. Everything is ordered and everything in its place – systematic.

We hear about educational opportunities and classes and how they are guided by budgets, and court mandates: A program in the minimum security women’s prison that trains them to be firefighters; Drug rehabilitation is too expensive and not cost effective; An Agricultural program with Hickman eggs that is a success. Efficiency is key. In planning the prison the state added one cell to the cell block, which enabled the state to eliminate a wing and 80 positions. systems; policy; procedure. We might as well be talking about housing cattle or chickens or how many widgets can fit in a box. A question is asked of Director Ryan, his response, “We don’t make policy, we just carry it out.” I can’t help but recall similar responses from the guards at Auschwitz.

We are escorted from the command center, back through a series of gates, herded into our white vans and drive 1/2 mile to what Director Ryan refers to as the Death House. The van is silent. We arrive and are again escorted through gates into a large courtyard. Flanked by correction officers we follow a path to a non-descript grey/blue concrete building. We are informed that this is, what they like to call, the Death House: The place they will spend their last night, housed next to their execution chamber. We walk in, two small cells, side by side, sterile, clean. We are informed that the two identical cells are used to house them. The style of execution, gas or injection, determines which cell will be used. We are invited to enter in. I follow Arizona House Representative, Juan Mendez, who sits on the bed. I stand near the toilet as others enter and leave. Conference Director of Outreach, Billie Fidlin enters in and says a prayer. I wonder if the toilet flushes, trying to bring some sense of normalcy to this surreal experience. We are told of the procedure and precautions that are taken at this point so that they do not hurt themselves or commit suicide. (Because this would rob us of the judicial process? Or is it that apparently it means more, and has legitimacy if we do the killing?)

We leave and enter into the execution viewing room where we view a power point and are taken through the time line of the execution. What policies are followed and how it fits procedure. Everything is scheduled. People are invited in: clergy in back; defense and prosecuting attorney sit here; media there; victims’ relative up front. Curtain to execution table is drawn shut; monitors on; they are led in. Phone calls to Attorney General made, they are strapped down. Warden reads the warrant. Medical professionals come in – two tries, then another artery is to be used. I.V. checked. Curtain opens. Monitors off. Mic on. Their last words. Mic off. Another phone call. Warden gives the order. Medical professional declares death. Curtain closes. It strikes me odd that somewhere along the presentation the words humane execution are used. There is nothing humane in execution, but there has been nothing humane in this entire process. From the time THEY enter the prison system it is by design meant to dehumanize. Cogs in system, policies and procedures followed. All is in order.

I left with not the anger, sadness or tears that I had expected, just a deep emptiness, a void. Two weeks later I am still processing.

I still vehemently oppose the death penalty. Believing strongly “all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valued. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. (Book of Discipline PP164 (g).)  what I experienced and realized was it is not only the death penalty, but every facet of our current practice and policy regarding incarceration that devalues human life. I am not moved by sorrow or anger, but by a deep faithful conviction that as followers of Christ, we must work for not only a change in the barbaric practice of the death penalty, but also for a change in our dehumanizing, retributive system of incarceration and justice.

Diana Volere, Las Vegas

We’ve got no brutality here
We don’t even have a firing squad
Why, we’re the soul of civilized
And our strict methods never flawed

Yes, we keep you cloistered safely
We prevent your suicide
We medically treat you
‘Cause you’re in for a long ride

Ten years or thereabouts
You’ll be spending in your cell
We’ll exercise you twice a week
It’s our job to treat you well!

Call it dehumanizing?
Why, you exaggerate!
Here you even can have visitors
Look-don’t-touch them through the grate.

Yes, we’ll keep your body moving
As the legal struggles come
Until appeals and hope exhausted
You give in and become numb.

But while you’re waiting we can tell you
All the rituals of your demise
For we’ve powerpoints and sterile terms
About how we euthanize.

We’ll transport you to the last cell
And we do that jaunt at night
It’s best to keep things quiet
It’s too hot in the light.

You could catch a bit of sleep if you like
On your last rigid steel bed
We provide a grand gourmet last meal
So we know you’ll die well-fed.

In the morn you’ll get an audience
Come to watch and see you go
Witnesses, press, families of victims,
Even your guests can see the show.

Then we’ll execute precisely
Our procedures one by one
Box your goods up, clean your cell out
Bring in a new unlucky son.

In your final orchestrated moments
There won’t be need for much sorrow
Although we’re turning off your body
We killed your soul off long ago.

Editor’s Note: To read the 2014 Resolution 10.01 Concerning Abolishing the Death Penalty, visit http://desertsouthwestconference.org/journal. The Resolutions are included in the Journal Volume 2. Be a part of this Conference-wide work, contact Billie Fidlin, Director of Outreach Ministries at bfidlin@dscumc.org to find out what you and your church can do.

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Author: DSC Communications

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