SCMP Friday, February 16, 2001
Correction by death
The people who run Virginia's Greensville Correctional Centre - one of the biggest prisons in the United States - certainly have an eye for a phrase.
When you arrive you are greeted by a quotation from Russian novelist Feodor Dostovesky: "The degree of civilisation in society can be judged by entering its prisons." It hangs from doors and is printed across the back of the warden's jacket.
When you leave you are handed a bumper sticker with the official state slogan: Virginia is for Lovers.
Ron Angelone, the state's director of the Department of Corrections, seems to prefer to take a middle line between the two. "There is no such thing as rehabilitation," he says, placing his hands on his hips and spreading his cowboy boots for effect.
"You can't change anyone. What you have to do is make sure you do what you can to offer the tools [for prisoners] to change themselves.
"The words 'correctional facility' are an albatross around the neck of the prison system . . . we are not responsible for what happens when they get out."
For an idea of what Mr Angelone is getting at, you only have to visit the segregation area at Greensville. Here, disruptive, dangerous prisoners are kept apart from other inmates.
If their behaviour continues to worsen, they can be sent upstate to the "Supermax" prison near a rural town called Red Onion. There, some prisoners - often those serving sentences of many times their natural life for particularly violent murders and sex crimes - may never get to come into contact with other inmates. It is so dangerous, Mr Angelone's officials claim, that visits from groups such as Amnesty International cannot be allowed.
In the segregation wing at Greensville, inmates are kept in corridors of 16 cells, each room about two metres by three metres. The corridors converge at a large caged tank where guards sit behind an electronic panel.
The gated cells face each other but a large brick wall in the middle of a corridor stops the inmates peering at each other. They yell, tap at the doors and sing instead. Guards feed them through tiny grilles. As they pass, cigarettes pop out through holes in the grates waiting for a light.
Several times a week the segregated prisoners are allowed exercise. They are put into wire cages outside that are about the same size as their cells. There is no equipment, just wire and concrete. Lined up together, the cages could be kennels for large dogs. "They tend to walk round and round when we put them in the pens," one guard said. "There is not much else they can do I guess, but at least they get a bit of a walk."
There are 3,200 prisoners in Greensville, all inmates convicted of felonies that can range from two-year sentences for repeated drink-driving and small-time drug offences to multiple life sentences for murder and rape. There used to be just over half the current number of prisoners, but as crime policies toughened dramatically during the past 10 years, numbers soared. More than two million Americans are now incarcerated, a rate that in proportion to the population is second only to that of Russia.
Most in Greensville live in cells with one other prisoner, move freely about their blocks and are able to cross the prison grounds to attend vocational, education and religious classes. All prisoners who are fit must work or face disciplinary action that can include segregation and losing time off for good behaviour. They earn 25-35 US cents (about HK$2-3) an hour, cooking, cleaning or making wooden furniture for state institutions.
The prison now houses inmates under contract from the states of Vermont and Connecticut. They are housed separately for administrative purposes, officials say. Most from the north are white, whereas the Virginia prisoners are mostly black.
Some of Greensville's prisoners are now old men, some dying in prison, often from cancer, liver trouble - a legacy of hepatitis - and Aids. Others are as young as 15, housed with adults for committing "adult" crimes of violence in the eyes of the courts.
Greensville is also home to Virginia's execution chamber, the busiest in the country after the one in Texas. Eighty-one men have been executed there since the death penalty was re-introduced in 1976, more than 30 in the past three years. Some of those condemned included men who committed their crimes as juveniles - a practice outlawed by a United Nations convention that only America and Somalia continue to flout.
The most recent execution was that of local drug dealer Christopher Goins, 27, who was put to death on December 7 last year for murders which so horrified Virginia residents that 3,000 people - mostly strangers - packed funeral services for the victims.
A statement from City of Richmond prosecutor David Hicks describes the crimes, which took place on October 14, 1994: "Christopher Goins entered the home of 14-year-old Tamika Jones, who was seven-months pregnant with Goins' child. Goins proceeded to brutally murder Tamika's parents, her nine-year-old sister, Nicole, her four-year-old brother, David, and her three-year-old brother, Robert.
"Goins shot each of these victims at least once in the head. During the course of this killing spree, Goins appeared in the doorway of Tamika's bedroom and shot the pregnant teen nine times, including three times in the stomach, one bullet fatally piercing the head of the unborn baby. He also shot her [18-month-old] sister, Kenya, who survived." As he was armed with only a pistol, Goins had to re-load several times.
Mr Hicks toured the crime scene, witnessed the post mortems, visited Tamika - left almost totally incapacitated - in hospital and was beside Goins when he died. Yet, he says, if someday Virginia finally decided to get rid of the death penalty, he would not mind.
"Do I have all the answers? No, I don't . . . Some people in our society have been on the streets since they could walk, living lives as animals. Yet I know there is so much that is arbitrary about the way our due process works. There is just too much discretion in the hands of prosecutors to decide whether to seek the death sentence or a life sentence. And it is not always fair to the poor and minorities."
Next week, the US State Department will release its annual international human-rights reports. The department will scrutinise prison conditions, due process and execution practices across countries from Asia to Europe. Even nations such as the Netherlands, New Zealand and Britain will not be immune, lumped together with traditional targets such as China and Iraq.
The only nation conspicuous by its absence in this report is the US, a fact that rankles diplomats from Beijing to Bonn. With little fanfare, countries such as France and Switzerland are starting to demand answers from Washington about its own practices while groups such as Human Rights Watch demand the right to visit prisoners in institutions such as Red Onion.
Proudly independent, conservative states such as Virginia and Texas are the targets for concerns ranging from their execution of juvenile offenders to death penalty trials that opponents claim give the poor and minority groups little real chance with incompetent lawyers and overly-aggressive prosecutors.
Virginia is particularly in the spotlight. Its legislature is considering amending a controversial rule that places a 21-day deadline on new evidence for appeals after a death sentence is passed.
One man who beat the system with a rare special pardon was released from Greensville this week. Earl Washington, now 40, once came within hours of being executed during his 18 years in prison - including nine years on death row.
Washington has the mental age of a 10-year-old and police eagerly took his confessions to a range of rapes back in 1982 while questioning him on another case. One was for a particularly brutal rape and murder that they had yet to solve. His case was brought to a swift conclusion and his court-appointed lawyer failed to raise the issue of blood tests that could have cleared him. Instead, it took recent DNA advances to prove that he could not have done it before enough political pressure could be brought to bear for his release.
Gerry Zerkin, one of Washington's lawyers and a prominent local legal-rights advocate, described the case as an outrage, exposing all that is bad about Virginia's trial system. "Unfortunately these things may continue to happen . . . when it comes to the death penalty, the deck is stacked against people like Earl Washington in Virginia."
Out in Greensville, Warden David Garraghty argues that the case shows the system still works. "Mistakes are made but the right result can still come about."
In the silence of Greensville's death chamber, the passions and the arguments about Virginia's system all seem a long way off. It is a series of pokey rooms and there is little feeling of humanity about it among the plastic chairs and dank air. Like the rest of the prison, it seems to be in half-light, with little life coming from the gleaming tile floors or brick walls - all grey like the rest of the institution. There are no windows.
The room itself is filled with two contraptions. There is a handmade gurney in the shape of a cross to which an inmate is strapped before a lethal injection. Inmates are fitted to intravenous tubes before the executioner administers the final shots from behind a rubber curtain. To the side is an equally crude-looking wooden electric chair, still kept on standby, as some inmates think the gurney is too much like a crucifix.
The only sign of life seems to come from a pair of cheap rubber sandals left beneath the gurney, as if someone has just stepped out of them. No one seems quite sure where they have come from.
Just as America's states cling to their powers, so do small jurisdictions. In Richmond, the Virginia state capital, it has to be a crime of considerable horror to bring the demand for death. Just 45 kilometres up the road in Danville, and it is a different story - and a different jury.
Veteran Greensville Warden Senior Keith Davis has stood by as 30 inmates have been executed over the years. Refusing to give his personal views, he says he is struck by the silence every time. "The men know what is coming and if they are lucky they will know where they are going . . . they are really prepared for it. In some cases, I just wish the parents could be strapped to the gurney with them for the young lives they have destroyed."
Greg Torode (
) is the Post's Washington correspondent.