Yesterday, I took my students to Central Prison located in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was my second trip to that particular prison. My second trip to North Carolina’s death row. Since most people won’t get the opportunity to tour a maximum security facility, I thought I would share my experiences with you and give you a glimpse of what life inside looks like to an outsider.
When you first pull up, Central Prison is an imposing facility. A building of solid brick, encircled by thick barb wires…
…and four guard towers with armed guards. They have both a rifle as well as a handgun available to them.
When you enter the front doors of the facility, there’s a spacious lobby with administrative offices off to the left and a staff break room off to the right. Pictures of the history of the prison decorate the walls and it has the general feeling of a government building. The only difference is that the individuals you see cleaning around the front room and changing the trash are wearing the white shirts and khaki colored pants that denote them as prison trustees – inmates who are trusted with working all of the various jobs around the facility.
We’re greeting by the correctional officer who is there to guide up on our tour. He, like so many other officers, has a blunt manner and a gruff exterior. He, quite frankly, was not happy to see us. Tour groups such as ours pose a security risk and every time a group enters a maximum security facility, that security is breached. My students shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. I tried to prepare them for the experience, but they’re young and didn’t quite grasp the idea that the world of prisons is a world unto it’s own. Different rules and different norms apply here.
That’s exactly why we’re there. Experiencing the inside of a facility is much different than discussing it in comfort of our classroom.
Next, a second correctional officer brings out a shadow box filled with inmate-made weapons. There are shanks (sharp pieces of metal) and toothbrushes filed to points; hypodermic needles and razors attached to sticks. Yes, these weapons were confiscated and yes, inmates inside probably still have a number of them which haven’t been found yet. In fact, I can guarantee it.
More nervous shuffling among the students. I’m certain that half of them were second guessing their decision to come. Of course, all of the officer’s words up to that point were meant to convey one message: use caution on the inside. I think the kiddos got the point.
After our welcoming speech, it was time to clear the metal detectors and head into the facility. Everyone made it through and we headed straight to the elevators to head upstairs to the death house, which is located at the front of the facility. Upon entering the large elevator, one of my students commented on the fact that there were no buttons to push for 1st floor, 2nd floor, etc… The officer pointed to a speaker and camera in the ceiling and loudly said, “1st floor please!” As a security measure, the elevators are operated by the control station up front. In fact, every single design decision in this facility is about control and security.
As we exited the elevators, we turned to corner and entered the death watch area….
…except that instead of being empty, there were 10 very large correctional officers in full riot gear standing there looking at us. I think one of my students peed herself. They were practicing cell extractions (getting an inmate out of a cell when he was an unwilling participant in the process) and because there was no one currently awaiting execution, the death watch area was a good place to practice this.
Death watch is the area where inmates are taken 24 hours to one week prior to their execution. This is where they eat their last meal, consult with a religious leader and get to visit with their loved ones on the day of their execution. There’s a guard stationed outside of the cell to make sure that the inmate doesn’t attempt suicide in the days leading up to the execution.
We turned the corner from the death watch area and headed down to the execution room.
In the picture above, the gurney used for lethal injections is set up as it would be if an actual execution was taking place. The glass on the other side of the gurney is the viewing area. Both rooms are small. Very small.
The execution room itself has been used for that purpose for quite some time. The floor is hollow and there’s a large vent in the ceiling. Both of those features were installed when the room was used as a gas chamber. There’s also what looks like a small steering wheel on the outside of the room that was used to control the flow of gas into the room.
There is also a huge, covered outlet in the middle of the floor, which is where the electric chair was previously plugged in. This is what the room looked like with the electric chair in it.
That chair is now in a museum in Raleigh, but the outlet is there as a reminder of the changing methods of execution that were employed. Finally, there was the gurney. The needles are inserted into the inmates arms in a separate, small room off to the side of the execution chamber and the individual who compresses the syringes that release the cocktail of drugs is concealed behind the second curtain.
After all of this was explained to my students, all 16 of which were sandwiched into the small execution chamber, they were practically tripping over one another to get out of there. Regardless of your personal beliefs, that is an incredibly uncomfortable room to be in, period.
After that, we headed to the pods where the condemned offenders were housed.
The tables that you see in the center of the room serve as the “day room” area, where the inmates can watch TV or play cards and all of the cells behind the day room area are single man cells. With the exception of count time (where the inmates are officially counted 4 times a day) and sleep time, the inmates on death row can hang out in the day room area. If they want to watch TV, they have to wear their headphones that they check out of the recreation area and the schedule is predetermined by a member of the staff.
Count cleared while we were touring the death row pods (meaning all inmates were accounted for), but they kept the inmates in their cells until we were done. As we were leaving the pods, we turned the corner and walked right into two inmates wearing the bring red jumpsuits that marked them as condemned. The inmates had been out to medical and were waiting to go back into the pods. I think this made the biggest impression on the students. They were just two guys, not behind bars, who smiled politely and waited for us to pass. I heard a number of them exhale as we made our way further down the hall.
After that, we went through the solitary confinement wing, where inmates were in shackles every second that they weren’t in their rooms (even when they showered) and finally we went to the trustees pods, where inmates were milling everywhere. The interesting thing about prison is that the students initially feel weird about entering the facility because they don’t want to feel like they are staring at the inmates. They soon realize that they are the object of interest instead of the other way around and what ends up happening is that the students try to look everywhere except at the inmates while the inmates all stare quite openly at this new group of strangers in their mist. If the students were feeling casual and confident before, they were now huddled together like startled sheep.
They all looked to me for reassurance and I, of course, smiled and chatted as I normally would, offering smiles and a slight nod for the inmates who passed by our group. For me, visiting prison is kind of like going back to your old high school a number of years after you’ve graduated. While I don’t know any of the inmates who were there at that time, the setting is familiar to me and most of the usual characters are still in attendance – the ornery correctional officers, the bustling administrators, the harried medical staff. Yup, it’s only a matter of time before I work in another facility because I feel as if my character is missing – the passionate young professor who will be damned if we loose all of these individuals to the streets. There must be at least a handful who can be helped and I will find them.
After that, we headed back out to the parking lot and we drove the 5 miles back to campus. Some of the students will push this experience out of their heads and go back to business as usual, but some of them will be changed forever. Prison, even visiting for one day, can do that to you.
*All of the pictures of the outside of the facility are my own, but the ones from the inside were taken from the North Carolina Department of Corrections website.