Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Up the River with Ed

Recently the camera on my shoulder dragged me to a place I thought I'd never see - Death Row. Thankfully, it was a brief visit. I made the ninety-minute jaunt to Raleigh's Central Prison at the behest of my producers, who were conjuring up a local tie-in to an upcoming John Walsh special on executions. They needed some 'dramatic footage of our state's killing floor', and while it sounded kind of cheesy, I was all up for visiting the Big House. As long as they let me out when I was through. Which they did. But my time inside was long enough to convince me I was right to put off that tri-state killing spree.

A sour-faced woman in a gray uniform rode an ancient desk in the Visitors Entrance of Central Prison. When I approached her with a smile, she shot it down with a ready-made grimace. As I tried to explain the reason for my visit, she looked me over, taking in my camera, tripod and loud Hawaiian shirt with institutional disdain. Never uttering a single syllable, she thrust a clipboard forward and motioned to the seventies-era plastic chairs in the corner. Ten minutes later I was still filling out forms, surprised at how much personal information was required to visit a facility I helped finance. As I hunched over the clipboard and scribbled furiously, a heavy male voice spoke out.

"You the TV man?"

Looking up, I came face to face with a sawed-off tree trunk of a man. With his wide tie, short-sleeve shirt and sensible brown slacks, my guide for the day looked like some extra from an old 'Barney Miller' episode. But this flatfoot wouldn't be cracking wise to a canned laugh track. Ever. With a suspicious glare, he took the clipboard from my hands and stared at it with the air of a man eternally constipated. The expression fit his face as naturally as the heavy stubble he kept so closely shaved. As he eyed with naked contempt the blanks I'd filled in, I stole a glance at his nametag. ED, it said. Watching him scour the forms for any mistakes or deceptions, I got the feeling Ed didn't give a flip who I thought he looked like, as long as I'd printed it neatly on one of those forms.

Still, it was his house, and I wasn't about to make waves in a building where they inject poison in your veins if you piss them off enough. So for once, I kept my mouth shut and avoided any sudden movement as Ed dug through my fanny-pack, no doubt looking for drugs, pornography and black market cigarettes. When he found only tapes, batteries and a half-filled box of tic-tacs, he handed me the pack and turned to walk down the hall, grunting instructions for me to follow. As we approached a heavy steel door, he paused. Somewhere from within the walls another state employee threw a switch and the door slowly groaned opened - revealing a long, under lit hallway.

"I s'pose you wanna see the death house" - Ed muttered over his shoulder with all the warmth of, well, a prison guard.

"Yeah, that'd be great", I offered. As we made our way down a long corridor, the polished heels of Ed's shiny black shoes echoed their cadence. Slate-gray cinderblock walls watched us pass with blank indifference. A rigid line of caged light bulbs split the narrow ceiling in half, and the blended aroma of sweat, bleach and mothballs reminded me of my time at sea. Somewhere deep in my head, The Doors launched into their longest song.

'This is the end, beautiful friend, the end...'

The sharp thunk of the door reversing in its tracks snapped me back to the present, and I instinctively rolled tape to capture the sound. Ed never broke his stride. As the door behind us closed, one in front of us opened. We waited wordlessly while the massive metal divider rumbled along. When it reached the end of it's chain-driven path, Ed stepped inside to a low-ceiling round room lined with heavy doors. I followed, more than a little reluctantly.

Eight, identical doors line the round room, staring back at each other but unable to see. A waist-high twelve-inch lidded-and-locked slot were the doors' only adornment. A single surveillance camera perched over every locked entrance to nowhere.

"This is ya death house. Six weeks away from execution date, we move tha inmate out of general population and in here. Right now it's empty", Ed said, with just a hint of disappointment in his voice.

Suddenly, one of the eight doors roared to life, rolling leftward on its tracks to reveal a cell no more than ten by ten feet. Squinting through the viewfinder, I centered up the shot and pressed RECORD. It was one of the half dozen sequences requested by my producers, and I remembered why I was taking this hellhole tour in the first place. I glanced at Ed and thought of a way to phrase my next request.

"Hey, you mind if I, uh --"

"Help ya'self".

Something in Ed's tone spooked me, but I dismissed the notion and stepped inside the cell. Hoisting my camera atop the tripod I'd been dragging along, I focused on the room's few items and got to work. The images were suitably Spartan - metal bunk, dull-rusted sink, stainless-steel toilet. As the tally light inside my viewfinder glowed red, Jim Morrison spoke from the grave.

The killer awoke before dawn; he put his boots on...'

The sound of slow-rolling chains suddenly filled the air, and I wheeled around to catch sight of the cell door slowly closing. Ed was nowhere to be seen. Not knowing exactly what I was supposed to do, I did what came natural. I put my eye back to the viewfinder and squared up the shot. WHAM! The sound of the door slamming home bounced crazily off the walls.

Pulling the viewfinder away from my eye, I almost yelled something to myunseen captor but thought better of it. Ed was apparently having some fun with me, and no doubt getting his rocks off in the process. Not wanting to spoil or heighten the experience for him, I put the camera on the floor and sat down on the metal bunk.

As I slowly looked around, I tried to take in every atom of the four walls and ceiling - wondering what details must reveal themselves after a lifetime of staring at the same small enclosure. I realized the room was about the size of my walk-in closet, but opposite in every other way. Instead of being stuffed with well-used possessions, this room was impossibly sterile, devoid of anything feeling like home, bereft of all creature comforts. For some souls, this was the last stop on Planet Earth, A weigh-station to another world. A place to pace, ponder and prepare to die.

The door remained close and I looked at my watch. Only three minutes had passed but it felt far longer. As I stared, the second hand of my watch seemed to slow down. Looking around at the faceless concrete walls, I tried to fathom what it must feel like to spend twenty-three

hours a day in such a place. Months spent deployed on a U.S. Navy ship had already introduced me to incarceration, but that pales in comparison to spending the rest of your life in a box.

'This is the end...my only friend, the end...'

I was relieved to hear the door began sliding on its grooves again. It opened to reveal Ed standing before me, an almost imperceptible smile under his five o'clock shadow.

"Thought you might wanna get a few mo' shots for ya TeeVee sto-ree"

"Yeah - you got me," I glad-handed, not ''s favorite prison tricks. As I stepped out of the cell with camera and tripod in hand, Ed broke into a sickly grin.

"Let's go see The Chair"

A few hallways and groaning doors later, we reached what for some, was

their final Earthly destination. The gas chamber sat empty and silent and as I stepped inside, the medicinal smell rather surprised me. Keeping one eye on my growing-creepier-by-the-moment host, I framed up a shot of the heavy wooden chair dominating the lethal room. Thick leather straps hung from the legs and arms of the chair, straps that had kept doomed men in place while the State pursued justice. In the back corner, a heavy steel stretcher caught my attention. Rolling tape, I panned the room. From behind me, Ed spoke the most words in a row I'd yet to hear him utter.

"This here chair's more 'n sixty years old." Course we don't use it no more, we just roll the stretcher in front of it. Ever' body says lethal injection's better, but I don't know..."

Something in his tone made me look up, and I noticed he was staring at the gas chamber chair with a look usually seen on men admiring racecars, speedboats or exotic dancers. Wondering what good ole Ed might do for fun on his off-time, I turned back to my trusty camera and got back to work. After a few minutes, I had what I'd come for and was growing anxious to taste fresh air again.

But one last sight made me linger. With the death chair directly behind me, I looked through the thick plexi-glass window into the witness room on the other side. Ten empty chairs glared back at me. I thought of what it must be like to stare through that window, to see disaffected press members, distraught relatives and the seething hatred of the victim's family - all while sullen men in catalog-ordered uniforms readied the potion that would soon induce your death. I found myself wondering which searing, sterile image burned into the doomed men's corneas as theycrossed over to meet whatever consequence awaited them.

'Get out', a voice in my head feebly offered.

"Okay, that should about do it", I muttered to Ed - apparently snapping him out of his own haze. "Thanks for your time, I'd better go run and meet that deadline..." I listened to myself prattle on, hoping I didn't sound as eager to leave as I thought I did. Luckily, Ed seemed eager to get rid of me as well. Ever since we'd entered the gas chamber, he'd grown distracted. Perhaps he wanted to polish his beloved gas chamber chair without any outsider's intrusion. Whatever his plans, he seemed in a sudden hurry to see me off, and that was fine with me. As we neared the visitor's lobby, his previous lack of expression returned. Reaching over to pluck the visitor badge off my shirt, he locked eyes with me. As he drew a little too close for comfort, I could smell institutional coffee and Texas cinnamon rolls. Ed smiled that smile again; the same sickly grin he flashed when first mentioned The Chair.

"Ya'll come back and see us"

Within a few minutes I was behind the wheel of my news vehicle, the images I needed caught on tape, and a few I didn't need seared into my frontal lobe. While my brief tour of North Carolina's only sanctioned murder scene didn't totally change my support of capital punishment, it's certainly made me look at it from a whole new perspective. And from now on, whenever I hear of my home state poisoning yet another inmate, I'll know that somewhere deep within the dark confines of Raleigh's Central Prison, my good buddy Ed is wishing they'd use The Chair instead.

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