Saturday 20 November 2010

Inside the prison death chamber at Michigan City

It's a place where the worst of the worst offenders in Indiana are sent to die in the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. It's called “the chamber” or the “death house.” WSBT was allowed beyond the prison walls for a behind the scenes look at this place that few people ever see.

As inmates at the Michigan City file up and down what's known as "Main Street," they pass by an 80-year-old brick building known as the "D.O." or District Office. That's the official name, but what it's really known as is the “death house" or “the chamber." It's the place where prisoners sentenced for the worst of crimes go to die by lethal injection. Behind the locked doors of the chamber, the gurney stands idle. Thick leather straps and cuffs are in position, ready to be used to bind the next death row inmate to run out of appeals. It is rare to be allowed access inside this area, especially because prison officials consider it a “sacred space.”

“When I say sacred, I don't mean a holy place. It's a place where we as humans are asked to carry out the execution of another human being,” said Superintendent William Wilson.

Wilson sat down with us to talk with candor about his role and responsibilities as the man now in charge of putting prisoners to death.

“I feel this is a place we should hold in some degree of honor, regardless of anybody's position on execution. It's where we put men to death,” Wilson reflected.

As close as anyone typically ever gets to the death chamber is the witness viewing room. During an actual execution, the blinds open for a only a matter of moments on a window to a world that exposes them to the doomed prisoner's final moments and last breath.

As he walked through the death chamber, Wilson said, “During one of my first executions, the offender took the time to apologize to us for having to do this. I thought that was a very compelling moment.”

As the clock in the death chamber ticks down to that midnight hour when most executions are scheduled to take place, phones near the gurney provide constant contact in case word comes of a stay.

“When you hang up that phone and nod your head, the process starts. That's the beginning of the end of a person's life. It's a tremendous responsibility,” according to Mark Levenhagen, a former superintendent at Michigan City. He is currently in charge at the state corrections facility at Westville. Levenhagen was superintendent when the most recent execution occurred in December of last year when Matthew Wrinkles was put to death.

“'Thou shalt not kill' is one of those commandments and yet I accepted responsibility and moved through that process,” Levenhagen commented.

Levenhagen's first role in any execution came back in 2005 with the Alan Matheney case. Matheney was the St. Joseph County man executed for bludgeoning his wife to death in Mishawaka in front of the couple's children while he was out on a prison furlough.

"I have a 23 to 24-mile drive to my home. I remember that first one I did, I got home and don't remember driving home. It's one of those things no one can prepare you for,” Levenhagen shared with us.

In the lengthy stretches of time when the death chamber is not in use, a team of 25 to 30 Department of Corrections workers from all across the state gather there regularly to practice. They are the execution team. The establishment of the I-V is the most critical drill to work on during those practices. In the chamber, the I-V tubing runs from the gurney through a wall separating inmate from executioner.

“There are no medical staff involved in the execution process because it goes against their oath of ‘do no harm,'" Levenhagen explained.

From the guards who bring the prisoner to the "watch cell" adjacent to the gurney hours before the death sentence is carried out, to the superintendent in charge, a highly selective process goes into choosing the execution team.

“We don't want anybody on the team who is going to be a cowboy type. We don't want those types of people," Levenhagen added.

More than 60 men have died in the room that is currently still being used to administer the death penalty in Indiana. Fourteen of them have died by lethal injection, the rest by electrocution. In fact the wiring, switch box, and levers for the electric chair are all still intact in the death chamber.

“So the chair is definitely part of the history of this place, and it's by no means defunct. If we had to use it tomorrow we could take it out of the case and take it to the chamber and hook it up.” Levenhagen said

The chair is now on display as an artifact in a prison conference room. It was built almost 100 years ago with wood from the state prison gallows. The last time it was used was fairly recently, in 1994. After that, the state legislature mandated the move to lethal injection. Currently, 14 men sit on death row.

“Generally as a final act of brotherhood, they will refuse their meal on the day of an execution,” Levenhagen remarked.

Currently, no executions are scheduled in Indiana, but Superintendent Wilson knows that could change at any moment.

He reacts by saying, ”Nervous? No. Will it be another moment to reflect on how you got here? Yes.” 

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