Outside of mythology and fiction, only a handful of locations in the world capture the imagination and send a twinge running up your spine. You get that disconcerting feeling when you visit a Civil War memorial, or the deep sorrow that soaks into your core when see the Viet Nam Veteran’s Memorial Wall for the first time. The pain, loss and sacrifice these places represent, causes the writer in me to reflect and imagine the events as they unfolded. I have experienced this visceral reaction at museums, battlefields, cemeteries and memorials, but one place stands out, the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison.
A few years back, I went to San Quentin for a meeting with the Warden to talk about setting up drug programs for the general population inmates in the prison. People outside the prison system don’t understand that there are nearly 3,000 inmates housed behind the thick prison walls, only about 700 of whom are on Death Row. The condemned population draws the notoriety, all the media attention and a fair share of the prison’s time and money. During one of my first meetings, the Warden took me on a tour of the prison, including the rooms under a cellblock where the State’s executions take place.
Hours before execution, the condemned prisoner moves from Death Row to a large iron-barred prison cell, in a room next to the chamber. In his last hours, he hears the echoes from rehearsals of the execution squad preparing for his time. A last meal, a visit with clergy and then at the appointed hour, the Warden and the Execution Squad members escort the man to the chamber. There is no green mile here. The journey is only a few yards away, where life will end.
Each man takes the last few steps differently. Some resist and fight all the way, while others make a final show of defiance, boldly striding to the chair. Then, there are those whose knees buckle upon seeing the finality of the execution chamber.
The gas chamber is large and imposing, looking like a deep-sea diving bell with thick windows and a massive sealed oval door that would look at home on a submarine. I went inside and got a sense of the last moments of a condemned man in the pale green execution chamber. The rounded steel walls closed around the chamber, broken only by a few plate glass windows that looked out onto the witness area. It was easy to imagine family members hoping for a moment of eye contact, or the survivors waiting for an apology that will never change the past.
When I stepped inside the chamber, the Warden shut the door behind me and spun the wheel on the locking mechanism, sealing me inside. I couldn’t will myself to sit on one of the green steel chairs bolted to the floor. I knew what happened there. Eyebolts and straps sat at the ready along with a thin rubber tube that ran through a small port in the chamber wall. The makeshift stethoscope would confirm the moment the condemned man’s heart stopped.
Through the window, I saw the wall mounted phones for the last minute stay of execution from the Governor, or an Appeals Court. I watched as the Warden flicked a switch that pumped the air out of the chamber and sealed it tight. My ears popped from the sudden pressure change.
Through a window to my left, I watched the Warden pull a thick metal lever. A hinge mechanism mounted under the chairs pivoted downward. This would drop cloth package of potassium cyanide pellets into a bath of sulfuric acid, releasing the almond scented gas. The heavy metallic clunk echoed within the chamber as the lever fell in place. This was the last sound a man heard in the moments before death. It carried a weight of finality, a sound that nearly 200 men carried with them in the final moments of their lives.
“Hold your breath until you smell that gas, then let it out and take a deep breath.” That is the advice given to prisoners as straps tighten around their legs and arms. Accounts of executions vary. Some cough, gag and vomit, fighting death to the end, while others appear to slip away without a struggle.
Since my time in the gas chamber, the State of California has converted to lethal injection as the primary method of execution. Currently, the death penalty is the law within the State and the men and women charged with carrying out that awesome responsibility do so with care, reverence and respect. You don’t get to death row for selling Girl Scout cookies without a permit, only the most despicable predators on Earth earn their spot on the row. Regardless of where you stand on the constitutional or moral grounds of the death penalty, no one can argue that execution is final and the man, or woman, put to death will never commit another violent act.
I’m not a paranormal kind of guy. I don’t see ghost and spirits, but if there were a place where evil lingers after death, the San Quentin gas chamber would be a hotbed of activity. I heard no voices, felt no sinister breath on the back of my neck, it simply felt heavy, oppressive and final. Who am I to say if someone still lurks there, or not.
Unlike the other 200 souls who entered the chamber, I walked out. Whether I walked out alone is another matter.