No control

It was time for me to meet my first death row client, Zane Hill.  Henderson agreed to introduce me.   He had not met Zane, but Zane would be familiar with his name, which had appeared on some of the court papers.

I drove us in my white jeep, which I had recently bought.  It was the first car of my own that I had chosen.  Until then, Paul and I had shared a small Toyota pick-up.  I chose the jeep, which had a cloth top, as an expression of my being an independent-minded woman, with a touch of toughness.

Unlike the image from movies of Southern death rows, North Carolina’s death row is not at the end of a long isolated dirt road.  Rather, it is right dab in the middle of the capital city, Raleigh.  The maximum security prison that houses death row is less than two miles from the state government buildings from which the General Assembly and the Governor govern.  It is about the same distance to the North Carolina State University, where young people study and party — oblivious to those down the road who have thrown that opportunity away.

I had been to Central Prison twice before.   One of my prior non-capital clients had AIDS and had been housed at the hospital at Central Prison.  Also, I had toured the prison when I was clerking for a federal judge.  This visit, however, would be my first to the regular inmate visitation area.

I pulled into the parking lot next to the small concrete visitor center that sits in front of Central Prison, between the street and the tall barbed-wire fence that surrounds it.  My cowboy boots hit the gravel as I exited the jeep.  As we walked across the lot towards the door of the visitor center, I got the sense that we were being watched, but I could see no one.  Perhaps inmates were watching us through the slim windows lined up across the front of the prison; or maybe guards were looking down from the tall towers at the corners of the prison wall; or perhaps guards were discreetly watching us approach on small video screens, streaming images from cameras no doubt located all around us.

It was September 1993, and in those days, lawyers had the ability to drop in on their clients at Central Prison whenever they wanted to do so.    You didn’t have to call ahead.  And if you did, it didn’t speed up the process.   The prison never notified your client that you were coming, and you inevitably waited for guards to locate your client and to identify someone who could escort your client to the visitation area, located on the third floor of the main building.

Heaven forbid you came during shift change.  Such a mistake would cost you at least an additional 30 minute wait time.   You also tried to avoid visitation day for families and friends.  First, you did not want to take time away from any visits your client might have.  Second, you wanted to avoid the chaos of stressed out visitors, often with kids in tow, trying to figure out what to do.

Henderson and I signed the sheet at the front desk, and the administrator, Ralph, called the main building to find available guards to deliver our client.  We began our journey into the prison.

Visitors enter the maximum security prison through the front door as one would enter any building.   It is only then that you are physically prevented from going further, as you are confronted with a steel door with a guard observation room next to it.

Henderson picked up the phone receiver on the wall and waited for someone to pick up on the other side of the glass.  “We are here for are an attorney visit,” he said and hung up.  A metal drawer pushed out from the wall, like at a drive-in window at a bank.

I followed Henderson’s lead.  We placed our identification and paperwork in the drawer, which then closed.  A few minutes later the drawer pushed out again with all our items.  The steel door slowly slid open.   That was our cue.  We walked through the door to an elevator and waited.  “Shouldn’t we push the button,” I asked impatiently.  Henderson just smiled.  The elevator door opened, and we stepped in.  The door closed, and we again waited.  We had no control of the elevator, an unusual feeling of helplessness.

After what seemed like an eternity, the elevator started it journey upward.    When it stopped, the  doors opened.  We faced a row of empty booths, not much bigger than a telephone booth, with a glassed guard room in the middle.  Each booth had two metal stools bolted to the floor in front of a wall with a large window into a similarly sized booth with a door.

The guard in the control room directed us to booth 4.   Once Henderson and I found our assigned booth, we each claimed a stool.  Then, once again, we waited.

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