Sunday, August 3, 2003

Solitude on death row

Ohio's death row inmates get used to routine

By John McCarthy
The Associated Press

MANSFIELD, Ohio - Margaret Bradshaw bounds down the stairs from her office at the Mansfield Correctional Institution and waits for a guard to let her out of the administration building.

The prison warden walks briskly through the clear morning air across the 1,124-acre prison complex toward the pair of buildings on a perimeter. She is going to visit death row, specifically the "pod" that houses about 40 men whose execution dates are close.

The pace of executions has increased since Ohio resumed the practice in 1999 after 36 years. Bradshaw, the warden at Mansfield since 2000, has overseen the transfer of seven of the eight inmates executed.

There are 204 men on death row at the close-security prison, a notch below maximum security. Mansfield houses about 2,200 prisoners in all. The lone woman sentenced to die is held at the state women's prison in Marysville.

Bradshaw frequently visits death row, where prisoners have no cellmates and have less human contact than the other inmates.

"I go out and walk around a lot. I get to know them pretty well, especially ones as they get closer and closer (to execution)," Bradshaw, 41, says. "I'm just going back to see how they are doing."

She chats with the guards - 40 corrections officers work there overall - and walks through the center of the two-floor, 40-cell pod, which is connected to the other buildings by hallways. Bradshaw prefers the walk outdoors, where she doesn't have to pass through secured buildings.

The cells are on the outside wall of the pod, while the inner areas house the guards' stations and a recreation area that measures about 12 square feet. Larger recreation areas outside are designed to handle up to five inmates at a time.

Each of the 240 single cells on death row is equipped with a bed, toilet and shower. The cell doors are fitted with single fortified windows, each about 6 by 12 inches.

Inmates spend 23 hours a day in their cells and eat all meals there. Signs on their doors list preferences, such as whether the inmate does not eat pork because of his religion, although they choose from the same menu as the general prison population.

On a recent day, inmates had pancakes and cereal for breakfast; baked chicken, rice and green beans for lunch; and smoked sausage with vegetables for dinner. Inmates who declined the pork sausage were served beef or chicken.

The inmates are allowed to have televisions - if they can afford one - radios and CD players and can watch movies in their cells. But not any movie: not The Green Mile or Dead Man Walking, two movies set on death row.

Word spreads of Bradshaw's presence. Some of the inmates speak quietly to her through their cell doors. She leans up against the white walls, her ear cocked to the door so she can hear what they say. She occasionally takes papers that inmates deliver through the crack below the door.

Lewis Williams, whose June 24 execution was postponed so his mental health could be evaluated, asked Bradshaw about money he thinks he's owed for housekeeping chores. Inmates earn up to $9 a month for sweeping the cellblock, helping prepare meals or doing laundry.

Bradshaw said she'd look into his request and get back to him.

"Thank you, Ms. Bradshaw," Williams whispered.

An encounter with the warden provides one of the few breaks in the routine. In a pool interview for the Ohio Legislative Correspondents Association, inmate Richard Cooey described his day:

"You get up and do the same thing every day. You get up and take a shower. You go out to the rec (recreation area) and you might play cards for an hour or make a phone call, come back in the cell and get right back into the legal work. It's what I do every day."

Cooey's July 24 execution was postponed so his new lawyer could have time to study his case.

The inmates are allowed out of their cells, no more than five at a time, for recreation and religious services an hour a day.

"The guys don't get many visits from family," said Kmal Najib, an Islamic chaplain at Mansfield and the Toledo Correctional Institution. "A good piece of what I do is not ministry but being a good listener.

When an inmate is given an execution date, he often turns to his faith or to a minister whether he has religious beliefs or not, said the Rev. Gary Sims, a Baptist minister who coordinates religious activities for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

"It is very humbling both for the man and for me. This is the end of life as we know it and we're entering the unknown," Sims said. "It is a time of great reflection."

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