I didn’t keep up with the newspaper articles describing the 20 million dollar Unit 3, but enough people talked about the new death house to where there was no need. Unit 3 would have cameras in every hallway, its own canteen and rec yard and it would be totally isolated from the regular population except when we were served at the chow hall three times a day. The building had its own lockup block (which would double as a quarantine for serious outbreaks within the prison) and jobs to be filled by a handful of death row inmates – pod and hallway janitors, barbers, clothes house men, and the canteen man. “State employees with death sentences,” grumbled the old head. “Making slave wages at .40 a day,” said others.
Total security was the design. Easy to lock down in the event of an “incident”. Simple to manage during executions. What they didn’t say, but was easy to figure out, was how much harder the time would be. How small privileges would be systematically eliminated until nothing remained except the executions.
It began with shoes and jewelry, much like the events preceding a historic act of genocide. We were forced to throw away or send home any sneakers, boots, or shoes that were not state issued. Any jewelry – aside from wedding bands—was also collected, though many items never made it to the designated mailing address because they were “lost”.
Next came the $10 administration fee for rules violations and the implementation of urinalysis tests. To prisoners who have no income and only receive money every once in a while because of loving family members and friends—ten dollars is a lot of money. The write up tax was also punishment in addition to time in the hole, but it was meant to help staff enforce all of the new petty policies for Unit 3. The urinalysis was insult to injury: we have no contact with anyone but correctional officers or prison staff yet we are punished for the drugs and contraband they bring in.
The last major privilege to be eliminated before the move was the ban on pornography. No pictures of woman engaged in sexual acts or exposing breasts and genitalia. Not even Playboy—and everybody knows you read Playboy for the articles. It may sound lowbrow, but porn in prison has an important role as a neutralizer of stress, tension, aggression, and sexual urges. Without it the time gets much, much more difficult. It also reduced the risk of incidents involving female staff. The only relief we had remaining were cigarettes, and these too were on the way out.
The day of the move we packed all of our property into 3 white plastic shipping bags half the size of a 5 gallon bucket. Books, magazines, clothes and legal material were counted, searched and searched again. We were strip-searched. Anyone who resisted was written-up and charged the new tax. Jabbed and aggravated and frustrated some more, the exodus of over 180 death row prisoners took about three months.
Unit 3 is horrible. Sure, there’s more space, but this makes room for noise, amplifying the cell doors opening and closing every hour on top of the hour. Blinding fluorescent lights induced headaches and vision problems. Even the night lights were brighter than the day lights of our cells in Unit 2, and they never go off. As grating on the nerves as everything else was, the intercom is the single most maddening, pull-your-hair-out-and-scream piece of equipment in Unit 3.
“COUNT TIME! COUNT TIME! COUNT TIME!” It squeals at 6:00 am.
“INMATES RETURN TO YOUR PODS!” It bawls after meals.
“FIRST AND LAST CALL FOR WORSHIP SERVICES!” It screams like some demon reveling in the sound of it shrieking announcement. The worst are guards who hold conversations with other guards or prisoners while shouting over the intercom. The only escape is a radio on blast, both ears numb with noise. Within our first week the number of people seeking psychiatric medication quadrupled. Complaints were ignored. The guards were all smiles.
Unit 3 brought another novelty: tour groups. Criminal justice classes, politicians, law enforcement personnel, various college and high school classes – they all passed through the hallways and stared into the large plexiglass windows as prison guards lectured about our lavish lifestyle and doomed existence. On the other side of the glass we stand back and wondered about the propaganda and lies.
From the end of 2001 to the end of 2002 there were no executions while we moved and settled into Unit 3. Then, in back-to-back weeks our first December here, Ernest Basden and Desmond Carter were put to death. In an office on the way out of Unit 3 a huge spread of food was set up on two long tables. Cake, soda, chips, dip, cold cuts and crackers, cookies—the sort of thing you see at a New Year’s Eve or Christmas party—except this smorgasbord was for the guards on the night of an execution. That it was displayed behind a window for every row death inmate to see on his way to a miserable mystery meat in the chow hall was a special kind of torture.
With the arrival of 2003 and our first full year in the new building seven executions were scheduled and carried out: Willy Jones, Henry Hunt, Joe Bates, Eddie Hartman, Joseph Keel, John Daniels, and Robbie Lyons. Seven celebrations by the guard working our unit that evening. As if to make up for the brief hiatus, 2003 became a year of precedent. It was the autumn of state-sanctioned murder at a level heretofore unseen. A macabre parade of death as we spun within the axis of our torment. This is Unit 3, our home for the foreseeable future.