Posted May 12, 2008 | comments Leave a comment

Death row more solitary than standard prison life

By Garren Shipley -- Daily Staff Writer

Prison is, by design, a place held far apart from life outside the walls.

But for the 20 inmates on Virginia’s death row at Waverly, life is an even more cloistered, solitary affair than it is for the standard prison population.

Since he was moved to Sussex I following his conviction for the murder of Winchester police Sgt. Ricky L. Timbrook, Edward Bell has spent most of his time in a 73-square-foot cell — a little larger than an 8-by-9-foot room.

Drawing a comprehensive picture of life on death row in Virginia is difficult. Visitation is limited, and Bell has yet to respond to a request for an interview through his lawyers.

But prison officials have provided a few details that they say hold true for every condemned inmate held at Sussex I.

Each cell has a bed attached to one wall, a desk bolted to another. Each of the 44 cells has a combination metal toilet and sink fixture. Inmates are also eligible to have a small radio and television based upon their behavior, according to prison officials.

One slim window provides light from the outside world, which Bell will see only once more before he is executed, barring action by the courts or Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.

While other prisoners are allowed exercise time with fellow inmates, Virginia’s condemned murderers are held in their cells 23 hours a day most days.

Inmates get a one-hour exercise period on weekdays, followed by a shower. On weekends and some state holidays, inmates can get an hour of non-contact visitation from family members or others on a pre-approved visitation list.

Face-to-face visitation is allowed once every 90 days, provided the inmate hasn’t committed a violation of jail rules or the visit hasn’t been deemed hazardous by prison officials. Visits from lawyers, physicians and volunteer clergy also are permitted.

Scott Vollum, an assistant professor at James Madison University who teaches a class on the death penalty in the school’s justice studies program, took a group of students to Sussex I two years ago.

Vollum, who holds a Ph.D. in criminal justice from Sam Houston State University, located two blocks from Texas’ death chamber, was able to make comparisons with the Lone Star State’s system.

“What I saw was an incredibly mild, well-organized death row,” he said. “It was a very different experience than what I had in Texas,” which has hundreds of death-row inmates.

Sussex I’s two-story, V-shaped wing, which at the time housed 19 people, was noticeably calm compared with other areas of the prison, he said.

“You get a sense when you go there that there is this sense of community, that they all know each other.”

Vollum encouraged his students to interact with the inmates during the visit, and every one of them, except for John Allen Muhammad, who is on death row for his role in the 2002 Washington-area sniper shootings, obliged.

“It was surreal. Each of them got up and stood at their [cell door] window and talked to the students. At first the students were hesitant, but some of the inmates would say, ‘Hey, I’m a person. You can talk to me. You don’t need to look at me like I’m an animal.’”

Beyond approved visits, the only contact death-row inmates have with the outside world is through the written word.

There are no group activities, nor any out-of-cell jail education programs.

Inmates can have some photos, books and magazines. Cards and letters are allowed, but all mail is opened and inspected for contraband before it is delivered to inmates.

Death row can hold up to 44 inmates at any given time.

Sussex I isn’t the last stop on Bell’s march to the lethal injection gurney. The actual death chamber is in Jarrat, just off Interstate 95, not far from the North Carolina line.

Condemned inmates are moved to a special death unit there in the days leading up to their execution. Life there is even more stark than in Sussex, at least according to one former resident.

Dennis W. Stockton was executed in 1995 for the 1978 murder of 18-year-old Kenny Arnder. He kept a diary that was published in The Virginian-Pilot.

He described his first night and day in the “the death house” in an entry from Sept. 19, 1995.

“When I woke up my first morning in the death house, I asked for a cigarette and a cup of coffee. Officers have to get everything for me, including my cigarettes. I’m not allowed anything in my cell except a stack of papers 5 inches high and a beige plastic chair,” he wrote.

“There’s a shelf of sorts that also serves as a table for meals. I have a commode, sink with hot and cold water and — get this — double-ply toilet paper! Not the single-ply stuff I’m used to, which has the texture of newspaper,” Stockton wrote.

Nothing happens in the death house that isn’t monitored, he added.

“Officers write down everything I ask for and everything I do, what they call ‘keeping a log.’ Guards even make notes in the log when I answer a call of nature,” he wrote.

“They keep my Marlboros on a table, and when I want one, they have to get it and light it for me,” he wrote. “I’m not allowed to have a comb and have been unable to comb my hair today.”

Bell is slated to die on July 24.

Staff Writer James Heffernan contributed to this story.

* Contact Garren Shipley at gshipley@nvdaily.com

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