By Nathan Sweem
My last assignment was the Special Confinement Unit at United States Penitentiary, Pamunkey. What a hell hole. The drive to work took about twenty minutes from my apartment in Richland. The place was out in the middle of nowhere in the badlands of Eastern Washington. The Tri-Cities to the east was the nearest thing to civilization, with Rattlesnake Mountain to the west and Badger Mountain to the south. North were the remnants of the old B Reactor, where the plutonium for the first atomic bombs was made. Everything between and beyond was endless wasteland, the perfect place for a federal prison, the perfect place for an execution chamber.
Pamunkey housed the one and only execution chamber operated by the federal government. One too many, I’d say. I was glad to hear that it had closed after twenty full years of operation. The news brought back memories of the time I’d worked there. I wished that I could shut the doors on those memories just as easily, and keep them shut. I also wished that I could have said with confidence that Pamunkey’s doors would never re-open again after. But even before my time there, it had been once shuttered for decades and re-opened by an act of Congress. If Congress ever voted to open the Gates of Hades, I wouldn’t be surprised.
The penitentiary itself was about the size of a shopping mall. It housed an adjoined correctional facility for general population inmates. But we completely ignored that side, and vice versa. It was a whole different universe where each of their prisoners, except for the rare lifer, had a set release day. And even the lifers over there were treated with humanity, with dignity. Our prisoners became a different class altogether. When we looked at each of them, we didn’t see a human with rights. We saw a dead man. They wore it on their faces, too. Any way we looked, there was no seeing past it.
I reported for duty mid-June, when the sky went back and forth between clear azure and gray but was always dry. I met the day shift supervisor Brian in his office. He was old enough to be my dad. His receding hairline and potbelly made him the spitting image, too. He issued me an access badge and pistol. Before he showed me my new duty station, however, he gave me two pieces of advice. If I wanted my stay at Pamunkey to last, he said, I needed to remember two things. First, don’t get to know the inmates. And second, don’t watch the executions. Ever. Brian had been there longer than anyone, even longer than the Prison Director. I figured he knew better than anybody.
He took me through the grounds to introduce me to the rest of the day shift wardens and let me see the layout of the place. First day jitters had me rattled. The inmates, about forty in total, were divided into two blocks of side-by-side cells. They had their own section of the exercise yard isolated from that of the general population next door. That was the last time I saw the cell blocks, which fell under the other handful of wardens.
My assignment was the interior level, which included the dining facility, visitation area, and basically everywhere inside that staff had access to. I was also in charge of visitors, which were rare. If all that sounded easy, it was. But there was a catch. They didn’t give me the easy gig because I was a newbie. They did it because the interior level warden was also in charge of assisting the federal marshals with prisoner transfers. This included transfers to the execution chamber—a death row inmate’s final transfer, if you will. None of the wardens wanted anywhere near that place. Neither did I, before long.
My first execution went smoothly. Ryan Nikolaikov was the death-rower. His name sounded Russian, but he was from New England. He plead guilty to the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a teenage girl in Boston, probably hoping for a more lenient sentence. Things obviously didn’t go that way. He chose lasagna for his last meal, and my immediate thought was how strange it was to have lasagna for breakfast. He seemed like a real sicko.
Fred, the federal marshal, and Brian hauled him out of his cell at nine in the morning, about twenty minutes post lasagna, to where I waited at the entrance of the long hallway that led to the execution chamber. Fred was a big guy, close to Brian’s age, but six-foot-five of lean muscle. He towered over Nikolaikov, who stared everywhere but right in front of him. Who knew what thoughts ran through his mind. Most death-rowers gave a final statement before they kicked it, but he didn’t. Fred read off serial numbers and transfer codes from a bundle of documents that dangled from a three-inch steel ring at his waist. After I verified the numbers, I keyed the security door and let them through. I secured that door behind us and followed their party to the execution chamber entrance.
My key card unlocked that security gate as well. In the three of them went. They locked Nikolaikov in the small holding cell inside and waited for the executioner to show. Some of the prison staff were trained to give the needles, but that was only in the case that a professional wasn’t available. Executions didn’t happen often enough to justify a full-time expert on staff. The job was outsourced to local consultants, medical and scientific professionals from the Tri-Cities area.
Dr. Fenning was the toxicologist of the day, as I read on the roster. He buzzed the door and I let him in after I verified his identification. He handed me his driver’s license without a word. And he said nothing while I escorted him to the chamber. Alone in the hallway again, I remembered Brian’s second piece of advice just in time, not to watch an execution.
There were windows for visitors to observe, covered by heavy chestnut curtains. I abstained that time. I kept my eyes on the speckled pattern on the linoleum floor. A pattern of beige and yellow puke-colored dots took me back to my post at the security door. I stood there and waited for over an hour. Florescent lights buzzed overhead. I had the jitters like it was my first day all over again. But like I said, everything went smoothly. Nikolaikov was dead at 11:23 AM.
Dr. Fenning exited the chamber, followed by Fred and Brian. Brian muttered quiet praise at me on his way out. Fred, the marshal, stopped to shake my hand and formally introduce himself before returning to his place of duty. Dr. Fenning checked out at the visitor’s desk, and everything returned to normal. The wait in the hallway had dragged on at the time. After the fact, however, I felt like the whole ordeal had gone by in a flash. By the end of the day, I couldn’t even remember Nikolaikov’s face.
I never saw Dr. Fenning again after that. He didn’t quit doing executions. He just worked on an alternating schedule with the other private contractors, and his rotation didn’t come up again until after I’d quit. When he wasn’t moonlighting at the prison, he had a general practice at Tri-Cities Regional Hospital. Every other execution I attended that summer was carried out by a research biologist out of the nearby Richland National Laboratory named Dr. Tinfield.
I ran into him on my lunch break on the day slotted for Scott Daniels’ execution. I was enjoying my chicken Romano at my usual lunch bench when Tinfield hopped into the seat across from me and introduced himself. My immediate impression of him was the exact opposite of the taciturn Dr. Fenning. With little prompting on my part, Tinfield talked my ear off about his research on the impact of man-made infrastructure on native Pacific lampreys. A background in biochemistry made him more than qualified to administer lethal injections.
Brian stopped by minutes later. He never ate at the dining facility. That was an exceptionally busy day, however, and he was crunched for time. He nabbed himself a cheeseburger with fries and stole the seat to my left. That was the most crowded lunch had ever been. Both were locals by birth, leaving me the odd man out, but I didn’t mind.
Before I was halfway through my chicken Romano, the prison minister, Pastor Rabiu, showed up in the chow line dressed in all black. He went with the chicken Romano and fries. Brian waved him over to our table and he popped into the seat to my right, effectively boxing me in. Pastor was from the other side of the world: Nigeria. Typically, he was in and out before lunch. The big event that day, however, had been delayed due to a malfunction in one of the injectors. We finished lunch, the repair technician finished up within the hour, and the execution went along without another hitch.
Scott Daniels, charged with the kidnapping and murder of an elderly couple in Wisconsin, opted for a final prime rib. His parents showed up for one last visit and decided to stay to the end. I stood my post by the security door in the long hallway while the two of them, surprisingly stoic, observed through the viewing windows. Pastor Rabiu occupied a neighboring window, separated by a cubicle wall partition, with head bowed and lips that moved at warp speed in a hushed prayer. The hallway felt packed compared to the previous execution. In a morbid sort of way, the windows, curtains, and audience made me think of myself as an usher in a theatre. Still, I observed Brian’s second rule of longevity and abstained from peeking through either open window. Scott Daniels was dead at 2:43 PM. His last words were an apology. Neither of the parents shed a tear while they watched.
The next execution took place two days later, before my brain had even finished processing everything that had transpired over Daniels. Geoffrey Erickson’s time was up. It was a Friday, and I was more drained than I usually was by the end of the week. I went over the paperwork with Brian in his office that morning and he relayed some of his thoughts on the case.
“He stabbed her forty-two times,” Brian cogitated, referring to Erickson’s charges. “And it just so happens, I noticed while I was filling out his record, that he’ll be the forty-second inmate to get the needle in that chair since this place was recommissioned. Is that not karma or what, man?”
I made a face and nodded for lack of a better idea. Both numbers passed right over my head, to be honest. What was another stab after the forty-first? And I hadn’t wrapped my head around what the last two dead inmates meant, let alone the forty-second.
That execution went as quickly as my first. Fred brought Erickson to my post in the long hallway. The prisoner had his face downcast the whole time.
No other words passed between us. Erickson had one visitor, a family member, but he didn’t stay. The man, whoever he was, made it as far as the front desk. Then he had a sudden change of heart and made a U-turn out the front door, distraught.
Erickson had waived his right to appeal and jumped ahead of others who’d been on death row for much longer. He waived his right to a last meal, too. He even declined a final statement.
The long hallway, that limbo between the cell blocks and the execution chamber, was occupied by only myself and Pastor Rabiu that day. Pastor’s head was bowed, and his lips moved as furiously as before. His prayer, assuming that’s what it was that he mumbled, was still an indistinct buzz from where I stood. He might have been praying in Nigerian for all I could tell.
That was the instance in which the procedure started to feel routine. The pre-execution checks, the manila folder pregnant with paperwork, Brian’s heightened nerves the day of, Fred’s placid face over the inmates shoulder, the automatic feel of checking names off my roster, the hollow beep of the key card swipe, the settling into my spot by the security door, the waiting. The lack of stimulus in the long hallway that time lent my mind to wander like an apparition through an empty graveyard. I saw Daniels’ parents in the observation stall next to Pastor. I replayed their motions from earlier in the week, their walk back from the window with faces of utter defeat. Not once did they look back to the room where their son’s corpse lay strapped to the chair.
So lost was I in that daydream, I hadn’t noticed Pastor step away from the viewing window until he patted my arm on his way out. The visitors, if there were any, were always the first to leave. I supposed that was part of the routine as well. Then Fred, after the executed was pronounced dead. Then the executioner. Brian sometimes stuck around until the coroner hauled off the body. After they all left, I followed and secured the door. That was the routine.
The security door clicked shut that time, and instead of nerves or relief, I felt defeat. It was almost like a piece of Daniels’ parents had brushed off on me. It was a tiny splinter that must have slipped under my skin unnoticed in all the rush. Now I noticed, and it irritated me. I didn’t know how to remove it, or who to tell about it. I kept it to myself and hoped it would go away on its own.
That feeling of defeat got worse. It swelled up the way a splinter did when infected. The pressure in my chest became unbearable. It pushed on my vital organs. My heart and lungs felt cramped in my chest cavity. Breathing was more laborious. My heartbeat felt irregular. I couldn’t go to the doctor for something that was clearly in my head, so I stopped for a bottle of Old Smokey vodka on the way home. I stomached a quarter of it in some orange juice before I fell asleep.
Something about what Brian had said lodged itself in my subconscious and gave me nightmares that I was being stabbed over and over again. I yanked myself out of it at two in the morning, completely drenched in sweat, and couldn’t fall back asleep. I didn’t know who the person was who did the stabbing. He wore Coast Guard dress whites and the brim of his hat covered his face. He stabbed me in slow motion, only there was no blood. And my arms wouldn’t move when I tried to deflect the blows. My only defense was to force myself awake.
I lay in bed until morning in an unsuccessful attempt to fall back to sleep. Fortunately, it was the weekend, and I didn’t have work. The hangover was an annoyance, but mild. I dumped half a pot of coffee into a portable, vacuum-sealed mug and made for the Columbia River front on foot. Fresh air in the lungs always helped for a graceful return to normal after a screwdriver night. Plus, the walk helped work the toxins out of the blood vessels. Or so I was convinced.
Unlike the damp, drizzly, overcast Seattle side of the state that I had called home all of my life, including my Coast Guard service patrolling ferry lanes in Puget Sound, Pamunkey lived in the rain shadow of the Cascades. This is a nice way of saying that it’s largely a desert wasteland. The one respite from the harsh environment is the Columbia River, which cuts a thousand-foot swath through the sandy badlands and makes the place habitable. It’s no Puget Sound, but it became one of my favorite recreation spots during my time there, especially when homesick.
Light gray clouds shrouded the sky, completely devoid of moisture. Already having emptied their bowels onto the Cascades, they merely passed over the Tri-Cities on their way east, serving no purpose other than to obscure the summer sun. That and occasionally loose a stray lightning bolt or two at badlands shrubs for target practice.
The Riverfront Trail bike path was a two mile walk from my apartment. I had been in the area long enough and seen the place enough times by then for it to be familiar. Despite the overcast sky, the atmosphere was pleasant. And I wasn’t the only person out enjoying it. The place was packed, typical of the season. The throb in my skull went peacefully by the time I reached the trail. However, with my senses returned the painful lump in my chest. It hadn’t gone away as I had hoped.
It nagged for my attention and distracted my enjoyment of the outdoors. Its noise inside of me was louder than all the hum of people around. The water was no more than a hundred yards away, raising a steady beat behind the din of the crowds. I needed to visit the river and have a word with the old friend. Not there. Too crowded. Someplace quieter. Columbia Point.
Every body of water has a soul of its own that persists through time and evolves as it goes. It is expressed in the river’s voice, its depth, its feel. But the thing itself goes deeper. Any characteristic observed could have changed over the years. These various expressions shift and adjust according to external influences. But no matter the circumstances, its soul maintains its drive forward.
Columbia Point was a half mile out of the way of the busy Riverfront Trail. A lack of shade trees, drinking fountains, and portable toilets stripped the location of its appeal to summer trail-goers. A parched footpath ran to the very end of a peninsula topped with dry brush and coarse gravel. A lone willow stood out of place at the water’s edge. The wind pulled its sparse limbs towards passing river boats as if to beckon them for a ride across to the far bank. I planted myself comfortably in the tangle of its exposed roots where the water crept up close to my toes.
The boats eventually vacated the area. The river’s babel drowned out the world’s noise. Its echo rippled through me, washed off the grime, and revealed the wound on my heart. That’s what it was. A wound, a pain, an ache, a guilt that needed to heal. An invisible knife had made a tear in the course of Daniels’ execution, in the presence of the man’s parents and pastor. If the river had the power to cleanse that wound, heal it, and close it forever, I would have leapt in without pause. It weighed me down on my way home and into work the following Monday. But at least I had come to recognize what it was. I figured that was the first step in finding a cure.
Pastor Rabiu came into the prison twice a week to visit any prisoner interested. Demand for his services often fluctuated. But he always found at least one customer on each of the days.
He sat at my table for lunch again that week. His thick Nigerian accent made me feel like a local in comparison. He told me that Eastern Washington reminded him of the Nigerian savannah where he grew up, except that Tri-Cities was colder and drier in the winter. Weeks prior, I might’ve stopped the conversation there. But more comfortable now, I broached the subject of execution. I wondered how someone like him could have watched so many. He told me that he always prayed with his eyes closed, and had never witnessed a single one. I also asked him what he prayed for in the observation booth. He didn’t give me a straight answer.
“For the ones going to die, for the families, for everyone. I let the Spirit guide my prayer. I am often overwhelmed.”
His voice, his presence, was gentle in contrast to the prison’s harshness. He invited me to Sunday service at his church and passed me a business card. I politely told him I’d consider, although I didn’t plan on doing such. His company was a relief, nonetheless, and his evangelical friendliness didn’t bother me.
Joe Knolls was the next inmate slated to die. The devil only knew what drove the justice department to press on with so many back-to-back executions that particular summer. With all the paperwork and legal coordination that encompassed each one, they had us running at maximum capacity.
Knolls had no visitors, not even the pastor that time. All alone, waiting for Fred to bring the unlucky inmate, my curiosity ran wild as I prepped in the long hallway. I devised a plan. The scheme was as simple as sliding open the observation curtain closest to my usual spot at the security door. That way, I could reposition myself a little further down the hallway, but still technically at my post, and watch Knolls die. I knew it violated Brian’s rule. I didn’t care. I needed to see whether or not the whole thing was as awful as I imagined it to be, or if I was causing myself unwarranted grief over something trivial.
I stepped into the cubicle booth and pulled a chestnut curtain halfway open. Then I checked the view from the wall to make sure I could see everything clearly. Through the plated glass window, I spied the execution chair with its plethora of straps and tie downs that dangled open, hungry for another body. The scene gave me chills. Satisfied, I returned to the security door and awaited the marshal with clipboard in hand. My heart pounded even harder than the other times.
Knolls looked pathetically scrawny compared to Fred’s muscular frame looming behind him. He was convicted of kidnapping, rape, and double homicide. The court said that he broke into a young couple’s home, tied them up at gun point, killed the husband in front of his wife, then raped and killed her. He stared off into space while I verified the paperwork.
I keyed the security door open. Fred and Brian took him into the chamber. I squirmed in the hallway, palms sweaty, wondering if either of them would notice the curtain halfway open. Neither of them mentioned it. The routine plowed on uninterrupted, and I returned to the security door to wait for the executioner to show up. Dr. Tinfield hustled to the door minutes later in a light sweat.
“I’m not late, am I?” he asked. “I lost track of the time.”
He was right on schedule. I keyed him inside and closed the door behind us. He quickly popped into the chamber and assumed his position at the controls. Then I was free to inch down the hallway as casually as possible until I had the half-opened window in clear view.
A circular aluminum grill installed in the window’s center, about a hand’s breadth in diameter, allowed visitors to listen to a prisoner’s final moments. It gave every sound a metallic twang. Fred’s voice came through tinny and robotic. He instructed Knolls to make his final statement, if he had one. Reclined at a slight angle, the inmate’s face was partially visible. He appeared to search for words while Brian double checked the straps that held his arms, legs, and body to the chair.
“I didn’t kill nobody,” Knolls whimpered with teary eyes. “I’m real sorry for what happened to them. But I didn’t kill those people.”
Brian took a hypodermic needle hooked up to plastic tubes connected to the poison cartridges on the wall, stuck it into Knolls’ arm, and secured it with medical tape. Fred waited a minute, in case Knolls had anything else to add. Then he picked up a receiver off its hook on the wall next to him. He identified himself and requested authorization to proceed.
“Authorization confirmed,” the marshal relayed, and set the phone back on the hook.
Brian unstopped the safety mechanisms on the tubes to allow the poison to flow freely, then stationed himself behind the prisoner next to Fred. The marshal nodded to the Doc, who stood at the controls out of my field of vision. The toxic cocktail plummeted down the tubes into Knolls’ arm. Knolls shivered, eyes watering. With shallow breath, he twitched in discomfort for a few minutes. Then a final, violent seize, and he stopped moving. He stopped breathing. His chest sank. Blotches on his face turned color. He was dead.
Fred prodded his neck with gloved fingers, and his aluminum voice said, “Joe Knolls, died at 1:38 PM.”
Knolls’ lifeless, glassy eyes stared open. His soul had shifted out of its body onto whatever plane awaited him. Brian undid the needles from his arm and reset them into their spot on the wall. Fred and the Doc exited the chamber and brushed by me in the hallway. The corpse remained strapped to the chair until the coroner’s team removed it.
After everyone had left and the door to the long hallway clicked shut, I felt like my insides had been scooped out with a human-sized melon baller. I didn’t want to speak to anyone for the rest of the day. Knolls’ last minutes kept replaying in my head.
By Friday evening, I’d lost the desire to do much of anything. I couldn’t even bring myself to hit the bottle of Old Smokey on my nightstand. I was sick to my stomach. I collapsed onto my bed, completely exhausted. I cried my eyes out.
I kept saying, “I’m sorry,” uncontrollably. I didn’t know to whom I owed an apology. Remorse spilled out of me, vocalized. I said it to the air, to myself, to Knolls. I felt sorry for the others too, Daniels, Nikolaikov, Erickson, their parents, their families. I begged for forgiveness until the guilt washed out of me and I made up my mind that I wouldn’t take part in it again. I don’t know how else to explain it.
I reeled for days after that. I went through the motions at work, numb. I felt like my own soul had shifted out of place and I was struggling to find it again. It took less than a week for another name to appear on the execution schedule: Saul Yosef Mazenetz. I couldn’t handle it.
I couldn’t tell you which crime had landed him there. I don’t remember. As soon as I read the name, the macabre routine turned brittle and crumbled in my hands. I wasn’t going through it again. I wasn’t going to step foot in that hallway. No more opening the door for the executioner. I’d seal that door shut forever if I could figure out a way.
Brain called me into his office to review the paperwork the day before Mazenetz was scheduled to die. Instead of taking my usual seat next to him, I tossed my key card and gun onto his desk and told him I quit.
He was mad. I’d never seen him so angry. His cheeks turned puffy and red. He raised his voice and asked how the hell he was supposed to get everything done on time with me gone. I didn’t care. It wasn’t my problem. I walked out the door, and never felt better.
They executed Mazenetz the next day. He was the last Pamunkey inmate to die that summer, but not the last one that year. I was sad to hear it. But I didn’t feel the guilt like before. The soul of that place was death. Its drive to kill was beyond my control. The chair was insatiable. I was done with it. I’d moved on.
I couldn’t speak for Brian, but I had no hard feelings towards him, Fred, or anyone else at the prison. I just felt sorry that the place ever existed, and that executions had ever been invented. Walking away like that without giving more notice was unprofessional. And it obviously did nothing to seal its doors permanently. But I never regretted my decision. If Brian had decided to hold a grudge, a black mark could’ve followed me for the rest of my career. Luckily, he didn’t.
I used to wish that Pamunkey would have been turned into a museum. It had happened to other prisons before, like Alcatraz, so I didn’t consider it out of the realm of possibility. It had happened to the old B Reactor up the road, too. Both of those places had public tours. If that had been the fate of Pamunkey, I would have happily returned as a tour guide and given the public a decent taste of what it had really been like.
I would’ve given each visitor a turn in the defendant’s chair for a mock trial and handed each of them a death sentence from the judge’s bar. Then they would’ve been escorted to separate cells on death row and asked to choose a final meal for execution day. That would’ve been their mid-tour lunch break. Then I’d take them across the yard, down the long hallway, and into the chamber. One after another, I would’ve strapped them into the chair, flipped the switch, and pronounced them dead. Anyone too squeamish could’ve watched from the viewing booths. It would’ve really been something.
I held on to the hope that Pamunkey’s doors would never reopen. While nothing could have righted any of the wrongs that may have occurred there, putting a permanent end to the killing machine would’ve shifted the soul of the place towards something better than death. I felt like that would’ve been the right thing to do. But in the back of my mind, I knew that the chair was still in there, waiting with its mouth open. It would always be hungry, and would always devour another soul as long as someone was willing to feed it.