Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene On Death Row

As executions approach, anxieties rise

By Jeff Woods

OCTOBER 4, 1999:  With two condemned killers down to their last legal appeals, reality is beginning to set in on Tennessee's death row, and prisoners are expressing their mounting anxieties to their lawyers and ministers.

"They're worried, sure," says the Rev. Joe Ingle, an opponent of capital punishment who counsels condemned inmates in Tennessee. "I tell them they've got to have hope. No one has been executed yet. They can't give up."

The rest of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, where death row is located, is buzzing too. The U.S. Supreme Court begins its new session next week, and if the justices refuse to hear the appeals of child murderer Robert Glen Coe and cop killer Philip Ray Workman, the men could go to their deaths before year's end; the executions would be Tennessee's first in 39 years.

Across the prison, convicts are choosing sides in the capital punishment debate, says Rich "The Zig" Hall, editor of the inmate newspaper, Maximum Times. A manic-depressive serving a life sentence as a habitual criminal--he just couldn't stop committing burglaries--Hall got his nickname years ago when the prison started giving him Prozac. Someone pointed out that while on the drug, his behavior no longer zigzagged, but merely zigged, and he's been the Zig ever since.

A skinny fellow with a ponytail and a scraggly mustache, the Zig talked with the Scene in the prison visiting room. On the question of whether the state is finally serious about executing people, many inmates were skeptical at first, but their numbers are dwindling, he says.

First, the Zig explains, eyebrows were raised when inmates noticed a fresh coat of paint around the electric chair. Then the prison bolted down the tables in the chow hall, just in case any convicts might feel like rioting after an execution takes place.

Finally, the warden ordered a lockdown, confining all inmates to their cells, while there was a test of whether the prison's electric system could handle a high-voltage surge. That was enough to convince just about all the prisoners that the state means business, the Zig says.

Since then, the prison has also produced a videotape from the death chamber starring warden Ricky Bell. He explains how the process will work while standing next to the state's electric chair and lethal injection bed. (Condemned prisoners are given a choice between the two methods of death.)

The videotape is for victims' relatives who wish to witness the executions, Corrections Department spokeswoman Pam Hobbins explains. "We don't want them to be shocked by what they see," she says.

Many inmates are against the death penalty, but "there are people in here for murder who think that if they go ahead and execute some people, it will make it easier for them to make parole," the Zig chuckles. "I don't understand the logic, but [some inmates] think that if they get hard on these guys, maybe they'll lighten up on some others. I've got news for them. It's not going to work that way."

Then there are the inmates who really don't care whether executions occur. They worry only about how long the lockdown will last afterward, the Zig says, explaining that the warden is sure to impose a lockdown of some duration to give tensions time to ease inside the prison. The selfish attitude of these inmates frustrates the Zig. He's nostalgic for the days of convict solidarity at The Walls, as the old fortress-like main state prison was known. It was closed when Riverbend opened in 1989.

"We were a brotherhood then," he recalls wistfully. "It was all for one and one for all. But this new generation of inmates, all they say is, 'Me, me, me.' They think the world centers around them, and there's nothing to be gained by standing up for someone sitting over there on death row. They can't get stressed out over it."

As for the Zig, he's against the death penalty, and he says he may resign his position at the Maximum Times as an act of conscience if there's an execution. "Those are the feelings I'm fighting right now," he says. "I wouldn't know how to accurately present such a thing in the newspaper."


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