Meeting America’s Death Row Inmates: Part 1 (Prison Documentary) | Real Stories

Meeting America’s Death Row Inmates: Part 1 (Prison Documentary) | Real Stories

October 24, 2019 13 By Stanley Isaacs


What’s it like when one of your friends on death row is led away to be executed Well, you spend you know years years and months and months and hours of every day with a person, you talk every day “Hey, what are you doing?” And you know, “Let’s eat something. Let’s make something to eat” And you know and he eventually comes by one day and like I got to go man and And you know when he leaves and turns his back and walks down them steps. He ain’t coming back They’re gonna kill um About an hour’s drive south of Chicago in the state of Indiana is one of America’s oldest and most notorious maximum-security prisons The majority of the 1900 inmates here are serving long sentences for unspeakable crimes And when I came at you, I wasn’t just gonna stick you an inch I was gonna run something all the way through you. Twelve are due to be executed on the orders of the state For two weeks I was given privileged access to this dark and forbidding world. I do deserve to be executed bottom line. I ain’t gonna candy-coat it. I deserve to be executed Welcome to Indiana’s state prison [Door buzzes open] My introduction to the prison was dramatic. The man who runs it: Superintendent Bill Wilson Agreed to take me to death row So this is actually the entrance? This is the actual entrance then, and it’s uh, 2 floors. We only have 12 men on on the row right now You have to sign yourself in? The superintendent comes to death row every week to check on how the inmates are coping Superintendent these the pictures of people on death row, correct? These are the twelve gentlemen that are on death row and shows their cell locations So that staff never have to question where they’re at. No staff members are allowed on the unit when the offenders are out So the offenders actually will secure themselves in the cells And then their cell doors will be closed or opened as they need to come in or out. Do you like any of these people? like? Umm… they’re all they’re all different in many ways and I… Am respectful of who they are, what they are. Would I call them my friends? No but there are some characters here that have some personality characteristics that you would say are likable. He knows them all by name and they know him McManus it always amazes me how clean that cell is. Keep it up. Got a lot of time in here. I know. Hello Stayin’ out of trouble? Yeah Alright Wilkes, how’s your eyes? You’ve been over to medical at all? Yeah. Okay. Oh Maura, how are you? Just one second How you been? Im alright you? I’m doin’ alright. How you doin’? Hi Is tension high? Not for me. Okay Im good. Alright. Ritchie. Wussup? Alright What’s all this? Mr. Ritchie’s wife, i believe is from England. Which part of England is she from. St. Albans Uh-huh in Hertfordshire? Yup Yeah, I met her about 4 years ago. Pen pal. And we hit it off instantly. and uh… She came over visited couldn’t get enough and married me How often do you get a chance to see her? Every weekend Do you mind do you mind doing this? Oh, no. No, not at all. Yes. It is very very unconventional though because the endgame in this relationship is one that you know, and she knows. well Yeah, kind of cuz a lot of guys Can get off death row. A lot of us are getting off death row. But cases like mine and like another gentleman back here You know, but we didn’t kill no women or kids We were charged with shooting a cop a police officer and they just don’t like guys like us no matter if you’ve got good Issues in your case or not. Legal issues to let you all to let you off death row. It doesn’t matter, you know what I mean? She knows that and she married you. I know. I found something now, see. I was a stupid kid at 19 and 20. I made very poor decisions. I would make decisions I would do things without thinking about them and I didn’t give a damn about the consequence at all That kid to me now 32 years old that kids gone I’m not saying I’m rehabilitated, you know. You’re not saying that? No, I’m not. Why not? Because I’d be bullshitting you. I’m not gonna sit here and lie to you. I’m the kind of guy that does need to be in prison Why are you the kind of guy who needs to be in prison? Because only kind of guy if I get fired from a job and I can’t find a job I’ll do it the legal way try to get a job and I can’t find a job And I can’t pay my bills. I’ll go get a gun and I’ll pay my bills. And I won’t think nothing about it; it won’t bother me at all you’ve described the person you are but How do you see your life looking down the line? Where does it where does it go? Where does it end up? Man… Either in a box or doin’ a life sentence in population That’s my choices right there. Doin’ a life sentence or being in a box. And I gotta watch my wife grow old through these bars. Out in the general population, convicts are allowed yard time: two hours recreation every day Save for taking showers and meals, this is their only opportunity to mix and to make allies. Have you been here a long time? 27 years. How many? 27 years. I was heading to the administrative segregation unit with lieutenant, Gillespie The men here are among the prison’s most dangerous This is sergeant Fagan this is his unit Many of the offender’s here are gang members drug dealers and sexual predators Everything they do is monitored and carefully controlled Could you tell me what this list of names is all about? This, every cell house in Indiana state prison has one of these. The idea behind this is to make sure we know where everyone’s at, what they’re doing, who they are why they’re here, etc. For example, if someone would accidentally take out 508 and 509 together and let’s say they you know, 508 owes 509 money so 509 is mad about it and they get put in the shower together and the doors locked, and he has a weapon on him 508 could lose his life Like that, you know just because someone made that mistake, so that’s why it’s important to really understand this board Do you feel that you must be constantly vigilant? These guys have nothing but time. Okay. We’re going home So we’re thinking about going to dinner with the wife going to dinner with the mom whatever, you know These guys have nothing but time; they’re sitting here, you know, and these guys they’re smart. They don’t forget. So let’s say you made um mad 2 weeks ago. You forgot all about it They don’t. So let’s say you’re sitting here minding your business doing something come up behind you and assault you Yeah, you gotta be awake. You got to be on your toes. The offenders in this unit are locked down for 23 hours a day. And when they’re allowed out for their 60-minute break, they’re kept apart in individual steel cages. One of the men is 38 year old Ronald L. Sanford By any measure, and in any prison community his is an exceptional story When did you come here? To Indiana state prison? Well I came here in 1989 at the age of 15 years old I was actually convicted of the crime that I’m here for at the age of 13 years old. And what was the crime? Double homicide So I committed a double homicide at the age of 13 years old. At the age of 15 my case had ran it’s course through the court And I was sent here to this prison in 1989. Double homicide at the age of 13 13 yes sir That’s very very young It’s tragic to say the least and it is very young. Absolutely. It’s uh, it’s unheard of Wow It’s unspeakable to say the least Even reflecting upon it almost 25 years later And all this had to be 25 years since that crime took place. It’s still very vivid it’s still very poignant and still resonates and it still has the same amount of Tragic elements involved in it now as it did then and it will always be with me for the rest of my life always says I always say it’s like an Albatros around my neck No matter where I go or what I do, for the rest of my life. It’ll always be with me What were the circumstances which led up to the incident which led you in prison at the age of 15? me and a friend had basically planned to get money to go to a fair and to do so we were gonna cut grass We went to a home basically and they said they didn’t want their grass cut, and rather than continue on the vein and go to the next home, we decided to push into the home essentially and it ended in a double homicide. It’s that simple. And I’m complicit in that crime. I was sentenced to 170 years. One, seven 0 You’ve got a sentence of a hundred and seventy years. However, you cut that You are not going to get out of here. I’m eligible for parole when I turn 100 years old Have you ever thought about all the things that You have missed that other 15 year-olds go through as part of their normal lives Absolutely. I’ve never been to the prom. I’ve never driven a car. I’ve never had a driver’s license. I’m never filed tax returns I’ve never been on the airplane. I’ve never traveled abroad Should I continue My life has been living in this prison and it seems as though I’ve been in this prison so long I’ve never been free 25 years in prison, you know, it’s a long time Especially when you come in at the age of 15. Thank you so much for talking to me Thank you for taking the time. I appreciate you My first meeting with Sanford was a shock but there were more disturbing cases at Indiana’s state prison One of the oddities of the American prison system is that an inmate can spend 20 years on death row Exhausting the appeals process before he’s executed In all that time convicts are confined to this cellblock and have little contact with the rest of the prison Paul McManus killed his wife and two young daughters It’s not bad, it’s the first thing I noticed about your cell, that it’s Terribly clean very different from any of the others. Why is that? I feel if I don’t use it in a month, then I probably don’t need it Yeah, but it’s it’s it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s it’s Particularly clean. Well me personally I don’t read or write So I have a lot of time on my hands so so I clean because I don’t write letters. I don’t read books There’s only so much on TV. You can watch before the show repeats So it gives me a lot of time so I just take pride in cleaning my cell Was your life before you came to prison very similar? Were you a very tidy person then? Not so much. I worked a lot so I was always busy. So I like to stay busy. It keeps my mind It works both ways, I guess, you know, I keep busy in here, but I’ve pretty well done All I can do in here I might have to move to a different cell and do the same thing, but I’ve been here over a decade so I’m just now getting it where I like it. Does being on death row take a physical emotional toll on you. Oh, it’s definitely up and down Definitely. Now I did weigh 250 pounds Almost two years ago and now I weigh 166. I have pictures of them if you would like to see them I got him right here in my pack Yes And you see the difference. So this is umm.. It’s all me. So you lost a lot of weight. Right. You know, it’s depression a little bit you know, and it’s also just Like I said it’s a roller coaster; it’s up and down McManus sees more of Indiana State Prison than the other men on death row He’s a diabetic and is allowed a daily visit to the prison hospital The authorities must treat him although they will in all probability put him to death one day Well here we are out of death row and into the sunlight, is this the only chance you get to mix with the rest of the General prison population. Yes, we don’t have a lot of contact with them so it is nice to be able to come out and see people that you’ve Maybe been in locked up with that are not on the row no more And every once in a while You can you know have a little bit of contact with that person Just for a brief second. Were you on any kind of medication like insulin before you came to prison No I was not, absolutely none, zip Now, you know I take quite a few pills and the insulin shot It all comes down to the food And also how you have your ups and downs where you gain weight and then stuff like that So, I mean that does play a factor Well, here’s a nice thing about being a diabetic is that you do get to get out and Come over to the hospital daily and then to be around regular people. It’s nice. Yeah. Alright. Alright, thank you See you later The rest of the prison is distinctly different from the oppressive gloom of death row Lunch time in cellblock C prisoners have a chance to spend time in the open air They can also earn privileges some have jobs and can request a haircut twice a month All the barbers are convicts Rick Parish is serving three life sentences plus ten years I must say walking into this place is one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve had for a long time you wouldn’t have thought that this was a barbershop or in a maximum-security prison Well, we we work hard to keep it unique In here because we like the atmosphere. We like being able to come in here and relax It’s neutral territory for gangs for officers I mean if you come to the barbershop and you’re a gang member Would you start trouble with the guy that’s standing here with a pair shears in his hand like this? I know I wouldn’t I suspect not to. That’s why there’s no trouble in here Theres still though this feeling of unreality about people with instruments like these In a maximum-security prison, I’ve been here 37 years. We’ve never had an incident in barber shop We’ve never had an incident with the shears. Never had a problem. You’ve been here since the 70s That’s a long time January 75. Long time. Yeah, yup Well, you know if you do it a day at a time like most of us, do. You do a day at a time, day at a time Sometimes an hour of time sometimes a minute at a time whatever it takes to get through Then you look up one day and 37 years went by There ya go young man. You have a good day. Alright, thank you Rick what are we looking at here? A little history of the penitentiary in the barber shop. the shop was remodeled in August of 76 and that’s the first picture taken in this shop Is that you that you there? yes, it is. So this is your wall. Yeah, I’m I’m all over the wall cuz it is my wall and this… You’re pumping iron here? Yeah, that was Probably 20 years ago when I was Eating anything that didn’t move and pumping iron at the same time. So this is a catalogue of your life in pictures. Yeah. Cuz you can see the progress from what I looked like in 76 up here, to where I’m at right now Here, that’s the newest picture. What emotions do they invoke? Wishing I was out there doing it, right wishing I could start all over again at 29 30 years of age and not make the mistakes I made But you get past after 37 years, you better be past all that You know have your head screwed on? You know Make the best of what you have. But the pictures are constant reminders yeah, of what was You know that’s like, you know, all of us that got here were violent criminals to get here What was your violent crime, Rick? I’m in here for kidnap/robbery. I pulled a robbery And the car I had wouldn’t start. So I commandeered a vehicle and there was 3 people in it All the pictures here you have it on Mounted on cardboard. Yeah, it’s on cardboard. So if I ever get out I can take it with me That’s what it’s for. I’ll fold it up and take it with me as a reminder. You don’t want to go back I went back to the administrative segregation unit to see Ronald L. Sanford again. His story haunted me. A killer when he’d barely entered his teens Hello, how are you doing? Hello, hi. How are you doing? I’m alright myself. Good How do you get accustomed to life in this environment. It takes some getting used to It’s tough. There’s was a young man on a range, very young man. Maybe 19 20 years old. He’s Exhibiting psychosis. They took him to see the psychologist because he’s having trouble adapting This is an abnormal environment for a human being certainly, you know These are essentially cages and I think that we stay in 24 hour 23 hours a day come out for an hour a day It’s taxing. May I have a look in your cell? Absolutely. Have a look at some of the books? Absolutely.You absolutely may, sir. Lieutenant, would you mind opening up? Sure I’d just like to have a look. Yes sir, you could you can take whatever down you want to take down War against the weak. What was that about? Eugenics Eugenics. Yes, sir. America’s attempt to make a master race, essentially And this one is the tree of life, whats that about? It’s Kabbalah actually, it was more metaphysics essentially Those those deep questions about man where it comes from where we’re going and who we are essentially. Yes I see that you have in addition to your books. You have some of your own writing on the wall that says strength Well-being and health. Yes, just something I try to focus on if there’s anything I want to state my mind on, as I always say it’s something progressive so being strong and having a Good disposition and being in good health or certain things are definitely more to uh, focus on. And you have written here No, no, man is your enemy. No, man is your friend… every man is your teacher. [said in unisons] Yes, sir. I’m also standing here and I think these are the parameters of your of your existence. Absolutely these four walls It’s a pretty isolating place. It really is if you see it as such. Its isolated only to the extent that you think it is, you know I mean those books allow for a great escape and to be able to leave the confines of the world, so But I’m only in here for a few minutes and I feel it as such. I feel the isolation. everybody in this building feels the confinement that were suffering here. You know, you put an animal in a cage for too great of a time, it goes crazy You know how much more so humans? This is what Sanford looked like when he came here at the tender age of 15 His murder of two elderly women in 1987 netted him the meager sum of $5 On that vile act he must reflect for the rest of his life Prison life moves to the relentless and monotonous beat of an unchanging routine Some inmates get the chance to relieve the tedium by working At the end of his shift Rick Perish the barber returns to what’s called an honor cell to which only the most trusted prisoners are assigned And they’re all two-man cells? two man-cells This is my cell here Rick, who opens the doors? Is that controlled… By the computer. Up in the office area theres a computer controls all the doors controls our water May I? Come into your cell? Sure, please. Thank you. And this is your cellmate? Hi Mike, I’m Trevor McDonald. Nice to meet you, how you doin? How long have you been sharing a cell with Rick, here? Oh, about two and a half years. Isn’t that about right Rick? That’s correct. So, but which is your side? Oh, this is your side? it strikes me too that there has to be a rather clear division of what’s Yours and what’s Mike’s. That’s Mike’s cabinet over there Yeah, and he has all his commissary and stuff in there this is my cabinet here and I have my Commissary and things in here but in general, were sharing space We have to try to give the other person their privacy if he’s doing something and he’s up walking around I try to stay over there and he does the same for me, you know, just you know Try to take turns doing things because it is close quarters. So, this is an improvement from any other part of the prison. You’ve been you’ve been in regular cell house You’ve seen how they live over there You’ve heard the noise? You hear how quiet it is. It stays quiet like this most times And sure you have to put up with another human being but it’s worth it. It’s worth the sacrifice Rick’s honor cell does not insulate him from one stark reality Death row is within shouting distance In the same block What is it like to live So close to death row. Well, I just block it out. I don’t pay any attention to it I’m a barber and I won’t even go there and cut hair because I don’t want to get to know any of um You know you lose enough friends through attrition in here as it is, about Them being on death row I don’t even wanna get familiar with um. Why don’t you want to get familiar with them? Because you get friendly with them you get to know them they get executed You know, you’ve lost another friend. Does the mood change perceptibly? just before an execution in the days before an execution Yeah, it gets even quieter, you know everybody knows Last one I think was Wiggles. He stopped here powered down through there. “I’ll see you fellas” He said that? yeah, he hollered out. Everybody is usually awake we used to Midnight. We used to beat on the bars. And how many times has that happened? Since you’ve been how many excecutions have there been since you’ve been here? I’ve never kept track Like I said, I try not to dwell on Keeping track of them, there be too many as far as I’m concerned. Rick Parrish says he’s never kept track of the number of executions Someone on death row obviously has Every one of the 12 men on death row will one day be told the date and time of his execution That common fate inspires unusual friendships John Stevenson was a member of an organized criminal gang. He assassinated three people Benjamin Ritchie who I’ve met before killed a police officer Hi, how you doing? Pretty good man, you down alright? Yeah, good to see you. How you doin? Good to see you. Good. you two are in adjoining cells. How long have you been friends? About eleven years, since I got here on death row. He was already here when I got here How did this friendship come about what what drew you to each other as friends? Well, just we got the same interests, I mean we play our music loud we play video games We work out play basketball eat together. if shit goes down, we whoop a motherfuckers ass together You know, that’s how our friendship came about. Does that mean you have a lot in common? Yeah, well I thought we did You’re not sure anymore. No. No, I’m just I’m just kidding. I don’t want you two friends to argue about that Nah, were not going to argue AW, hell nah. I mean if anything we always argued, but we’ve never come to blows over nothing No, never. Well be like ” fuck you, fuck you” and then half hour later, “hey what we eating tonight?” You know, it’s over. Yeah, don’t matter don’t mean nothing I’m always right in the end, so Get the fuck outta here He’s the voice of reason you’re the voice of anger from what you’ve said. Absolutely yeah. Is that right? He keeps a leash on me. Yeah Like I’d rather lash out at someone, like when I first met Bowen and he hated me because I was just a straight-up asshole I be in your face. Fuck you, you know come on in the shower and let’s fight and I calmed way down since then Yeah, most of the police couldn’t stand my ass and I got allowed around older cats and they calmed me down From your point of view. What’s this friendship based on we heard from Richie what he thought about it. Trusting in each other Basically that it, you know, trust like if shit goes down I got his back. He’s got mine See that’s why they moved us cuz he got into it with a dude up here in here and uh almost killed him the police had to come in and stop it and After they broke it up and everything Administration got wind that I was gonna try to kill the dude because he cut my buddy with a knife And so they moved me and my buddy, Tex here to the back and moved dude up in the front by hisself So nobody can get to the dude within the first two weeks of being on death row I watched a man get murdered in front of me get stabbed there 42 times dispatched instantly and that was my Wake up to death row Like if you come here you want to be a bully you want to take shit from people This is what’s gonna happen to you Dude was just butchered Although you witnessed something so horrendous You still sound pretty angry. But see here’s the thing if you show any sign of weakness in here the Sharks will circle I won’t be a victim I’ll be one of the Sharks. I think the Sharks are gonna circle regardless The average sentence at Indiana State Prison is 52 years. In Britain that might seem like two life sentences But it’s infinitely preferable to having an execution order hanging over your head Hello Lieutenant Bowen has taken me to E block to meet one prisoner who has escaped the death penalty Sup Harrison, how you doing Pretty good Trevor this is a offender Harrison. I’ve known Offender Harris for probably around six years. I knew him here and also he was on death row before How was it that you managed to move from death row? which is not a particularly pleasant environment, to this which is comparatively Much more pleasant. The court ordered me a new trial and they gave me years instead of the death penalty How did you get that new trial Judge that was in my trial was biased So they ordered a new trial and instead of taking the whole thing, I just went ahead and took the deal which was 150 years 150 years? A long time isn’t it? That’s a very very long time indeed. In other words. I’ll die in here No way I can make out no way. I’m 62 now My out date is 66 So there’s just no way in the world. I can I can make it out there are people who might think that there’s not a lot of difference between being on death row and having been given 150 years at the age of 62 It was like you said there’s still hope there. There’s no hope on death row Once they put you to death, that’s it There’s no more Wondering what’s gonna happen. There’s no more trying to work your way out of it. There’s no more. There’s nothing Still in a way a kind of death sentence I is a death sentence but you’ve got a lot more freedom out here and you might as well take the freedom and Live your life out here and having a job and being able to work And go to chow hall and go to the chapel and do that, then to sit up there and just wait to die How long were you on death row? 18 and a half years. What was it like to spend so long knowing that you faced execution Very very hard very hard It’s hard to do it up on x-row sitting there waiting for your last meal, your last day Not knowing when it’s gonna come. Why were you on death row? They said I killed three people That’s what I was up there for. You would probably have been executed. Executed yeah Had a date been set for that? Yes, I had about two months. That was a pretty close run thing What was that moment like for you when you heard that you had avoided execution? It was a great moment. was a great moment. Even though I still got a lot of time to do like you said where theres life there’s hope As he said James Harrison will not leave this prison alive But he knows he’ll never be strapped to a gurney and given the lethal injection Just after midnight Like most of the inmates, Harrison now enjoys the strange freedom Of not knowing the date and time of his death Before leaving the prison at the end of my first week I asked to see Benjamin Ritchie again But this time face to face In the year 2000 he shot and killed a policeman At the time, Ritchie was on parole for burglary With less of the bravado he showed in the company of his friend. I wanted to hear his view of his life and his crime talk me through the incident which Led you to be here. Well, my crime is shooting a police officer, and killing him And, uh It started off You know pretty harmless as a theft crime Me and my friends would ride around and carjack people and take their rims from their cars from them and My buddy’s car was already full. So I Decided let’s get a van or a truck and we fill it up with some rims and take it back and we can go sell everything I got in a high-speed chase and wrecked into a house and jumped out and took off running I was trying to get away, you know, but the cop was young and he was on my ass and I thought maybe if I you know, take my gun out and fired a couple times It’d scare him because you know, he’s a Beachborough police officer. It’s kind of a good neighborhood Like how many times has he been shot at, you know, you know if that bullet would have hit Just less than half of an inch lower he’d be alive today And I’d probably have a long lengthy prison sentence, but I wouldn’t be on death row man How were you apprehended? How were you caught well, I actually got away I made it back actually a few blocks away to some family’s house and a girl I was seeing and got away And I didn’t know I killed him until I got back to the house and seen it on the news and that just destroyed me I knew I hit him in the backyard, but I didn’t know he was dead, right? I fell asleep Next thing I know I wake up. My buddy says they’re outside. I wake up And it was like in the movies you see a whole bunch of red dots for their guns going in and out the windows And I was like, yeah, it’s bad man. I told him go ahead and go out leave the house And I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I didn’t have no gun. I couldn’t fight no more. So I just gave up What went through your mind when the court Pronounced you guilty? Well, I was trying to portray a tough guy in court So when they gave me the depth sentence, I laughed at him and the prosecutor told everybody that’s the voice of evil Which I I would agree at the time. Yeah You know, I deserved the death penalty. I was young and didn’t care about anybody at all, but myself Or anything. And uh, I deserve that I deserved that sentence at the time and Yeah, I just pretty much laughed at him when they gave it to me but then, you know when I was by myself it really sunk in like man you You’re more likely gonna be executed one day and it just hit me hard, you know so I put my face in my pillow and you know, I mean Cried a little bit Was it inevitable that sooner or later You would end up in a place like this? I always knew as a kid. I’d probably end up in prison Yeah It’s weird because when I was a kid I was fascinated with prison movies. Every time we’d drive by a prison I would wonder what are those guys doing? What’s it like in there? What are they up to? You know what I mean? Why should I care? I’m a kid. Why should I care? Cuz I just always knew I was gonna end up in there because I just had a problem with the rules with authority and As you can see I’m here because of that Because you killed the police officer You face execution. If it does come to that would you face that moment with deep regret with remorse or with defiance? I would definitely regret it and definitely have remorse But I’d also have a little defiance like why are you killing me? You said killings wrong, but yet you’re premeditatedly strapping me to this table and you’re gonna poison me to death. You’re gonna kill me and that’s what I would You know Resent