Three shifts of an 11th hour

Illustrations by Iris Gottlieb. Handwriting taken from the author's letter.

It feels odd admitting this, but I have a hard time keeping up with my ChapStick. No matter how conscious of my efforts, somehow I will always lose track of which pocket I initially determined would be the go-to spot for my ChapStick.

Rather than disregarding this miniscule accessory as a lost cause and moving on to the next flavory lip balm, I will go through hell or high water looking for what most people would consider no big deal. I guess I just have a tendency to sweat the small stuff.

Like the morning of October 9, 2014, between 6:30-7:06 a.m., when a lunar eclipse made its presence known outside my prison cell window. No big deal, right? Just the sun and moon playing out their roles before the eyes of a small earthly audience. No more, no less. But for me, there was meaning in this natural satellite changing shifts with the star like no other. I see this celestial transition as a conclusion to a person’s life. Here’s why:

Since I’ve been on death row, most executions in North Carolina have taken place at 2 a.m. Friday mornings. In my 19 years here, I’ve seen exceptions, but third shift – when prisoners stand still and prison officers work late into the night – is the state’s designated time for the compulsory transcendence of a soul.

For 35 executions, I have observed officers and prisoners connecting socially, as individuals, but disengaging professionally, so that each can play their respective role during the designated shift. In some circles, the role of the condemned has no significance, while the archaic tradition of killing is held in high regard. There is nothing small about plotting and carrying out a state sanctioned murder, even if the lives taken are chapped with flaws and written off as the public’s throw-away.

Ricky Lee Sanderson (1/30/98), Zane Brown Hill (8/14/98), John Thomas Noland, Jr. (11/20/98), James David Rich (3/26/99), Harvey Lee Green (9/24/99), Arthur Martin Boyd, Jr. (10/21/99), David Junior Brown (11/19/99), Michael Sexton (11/9/00), Willie Ervin Fisher (3/9/01), Clifton Allen White (8/24/01), Ronald Wayne Frye (8/31/01), David Junior Ward (10/12/01).

First shift begins at 7 a.m. and lasts until 3 p.m. The initial duty is the morning security check. First-shift officers walk through the blocks, keys bouncing with each step, their batons rattling the steel bars of the tier windows. They look into each cell and inspect the showers, janitor’s closets, and dayroom area before the inhabitants are released from the mandatory eight-hour solitary placement in which a condemned being is expected to rest.

With or without an execution on the state’s docket, this is the shift that operates under the premise of business hours. Legal mail is accepted and delivered; major shakedowns and strip-searches are imposed; and any business to be conducted with the unit manager, chaplain, or warden will take place under the watch of the first shift. Breakfast, sick call, visitation, legal appointments, and lunch are the imperative social interactions between officer and prisoner. The officers of this shift have to be the most cordial when dealing with those sentenced to wear the blood-red jumpsuit of a death row prisoner.

Two days before a scheduled execution, first-shift officers become the “Empathizers.” Some secretly confess their disapproval of the state’s upcoming act of murder with malice and forethought. Some would have you believe they threatened to quit their job if called in to work an execution night. Others attempt to console specific prisoners with spiritual talk and pleasant words about the life soon to be taken.

John Hardy Rose (11/30/01), Ernest West Basden (12/6/02), Desmond Keith Carter (12/10/02), William Quentin Jones (8/22/03), Henry Lee Hunt (9/12/03), Joseph Earl Bates (9/26/03), Edward Ernest Hartman (10/3/03), Joseph Timothy Keel (11/7/03), John Dennis Daniels (11/14/03), Robbie James Lyons (12/5/03), Raymond Dale Rowsey (1/9/04), Sammy Crystal Perkins (10/8/04).

Second shift begins at 3 p.m. and lasts until 11 p.m. This crew expects all administrative business with prisoners to be complete when they arrive. Other than regular mail call and escorting prisoners to and from the final feeding of the day, second-shift officers have little interpersonal interaction with us. These officers act as the state’s “Enforcers,” typically treating prisoners like human livestock.

At 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., officers go from block to block counting heads, as all movement amongst death row dwellers ceases. “Count time! Count time!” We have the option of standing in the pod by our cell doors or remaining inside our cells, all the while being reminded of our depreciated social value.

When the state’s modernized gallows have grown restless, certain members of the second-shift crew are handpicked to guard and assist the condemned prisoner in packing or disposing of any personal items, such as pictures, letters, books, meds, and playing cards. They will then escort the condemned out of the block and into the sinister space of the death chamber.

I cannot recall one time when the staff found it necessary to lock down the block during this intense exercise of segregation. You would think a group of “animals” sensing the slaughter of one of their own would make for the most dangerous of environments. But there are no confrontations, only the heartfelt gestures of people sensing the demise of another. Through these darkest moments of my existence, I’ve learned that a genuine embrace can last a lifetime. The Enforcers always leave the block unscathed.

An execution night requires some staff members to remain at work past the conclusion of the second shift. To ease this burden, a potluck meal usually awaits them once the prisoner is secure on death watch. Secure on death watch? Imagine that. While the prisoner juggles the remaining moments of his earthly existence, overtime staff are sitting down to enjoy BBQ pork, beef spare ribs, potato salad, ice-cream cakes, sweet potato pies – you name it. An edible ensemble whetting the appetite to uphold the lopsided justice of capital punishment.

An “execution party” is never concealed. This culinary release will be on display in the sergeant’s office, or in a nearby conference room, before all residential movement is restricted for the night. The officers want us to see this. They want us to know the 11th hour is upon one of our own, and he will not be the only one eating a decent meal tonight. This act is especially cruel, because the celebratory display symbolizes the inevitable removal of an individual from a death row population that is starving for a small portion of humanity.

Charles Wesley Roache (10/22/04), Frank Ray Chandler (11/12/04), William Dillard Powell (3/11/05), Earl J. Richmond, Jr. (5/6/05), Steven Van McHone (11/11/05), Elias Hanna Syriani (11/18/05), Kenneth Lee Boyd (12/2/05), Perrie Dyon Simpson (1/20/06), Patrick Lane Moody (3/17/06), Willie Brown, Jr. (4/21/06), Samuel Russell Flippen (8/18/06).

Third shift usually begins at 11 p.m. and lasts until 7 a.m. But on an execution night, a third-shift officer reports for work early. His or her job is simple: sit on the block with the condemned prisoners who have yet to receive an execution date until the choreographed killing is carried out. These officers are the “Babysitters.” Most of the time, they will leave the block before 2:30 a.m. Of the 35 executions I’ve endured, most didn’t last longer than half an hour.

I wonder how long the executions would last now. Forty, fifty minutes, maybe? North Carolina has gone ten years without an execution because its heinous methods of capital punishment can no longer be disguised as peaceful sleep. Injecting a person with a poisonous cocktail is no minor procedure, and dying will never be as simple as taking a nap. Executed men violently gasp for air and experience convulsions that would disturb the most morbid of eyewitnesses. North Carolina has now had a decade to fine-tune its protocols and poisons, but there will never be anything tranquil about the state’s “Killer Cocktail.”

Sleep has become foreign to my anatomy. Maybe all the execution nights have something to do with that. Too many shifts spent in the 11th hour have made rest a taboo. Restlessness, however, fuels my productivity. It allows me to keep my eyes on the next shift change – whether it be outside of a cell window, or inside this box.

Leroy E. Mann is a resident of death row in Raleigh’s Central Prison, where he is a witness to the injustice of capital punishment. He is the author of a memoir and an unpublished novel titled Concrete Seeds, and he has blogged at Word to the Masses for more than six years.

Iris Gottlieb is a collector, illustrator, animator, and layman scientist currently living on the west coast, but born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. She is the author and illustrator of a book, Natural Attraction.**