McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

December 6, 2011

OSP’s H-unit, life on death row

By Rachel Petersen
Staff Writer

McALESTER — Oklahoma State Penitentiary, in McAlester, is a world of it’s own, where men live in cement rooms no bigger than most people’s bathrooms and some people’s closets.

Recently, the McAlester News-Capital was able to take a tour of OSP’s H-unit, a cellblock at the maximum security prison that houses administrative segregation inmates, new receptions and offenders condemned to death.

Entering the maximum security prison’s H-unit can be a surreal experience for some, as two sets of hydraulic steel bars open and then close with a loud, final clanking noise.

Death row inmates at OSP typically spend 23 out of 24 hours a day in their cells. For the other hour, they are allowed to walk freely in “the yard,” a cement room, approximately 20 feet by 20 feet, with a clouded skylight-type ceiling that adorns one blue racquetball. Death row inmates spend their hour alone in this room.

There are a total of 54 cells on death row, all of which can accommodate two condemned men. Most death row inmates, however, are single-celled. There are somewhere around 68 men housed on death row today. There will be one less after Jan. 5, 2012, if no stay is granted for convicted murderer Gary R. Welch, whose execution is scheduled for that day.

Once a man is on death row, he will never have physical contact with his family again. He will only be able to communicate with his loved ones through a set of steel bars and a window — and a telephone.

Anytime a death row offender moves outside of his cell, his arms and legs are shackled and he is transported by a minimum of three guards. The one time a death row inmate will be allowed to walk freely is on his execution day.

Death row inmate Welch said that it is typically very quite on execution days. “You could hear a pin drop.” The mood is quite somber.

Twenty-four hours prior to his execution, a death row inmate is moved from his cell to the execution holding cell, which is numbered “LL” and is less than five feet from the entrance to the death chamber.

The inmate will be showered and given a new set of clothes prior to moving into the holding cell. He will be X-rayed and strip searched, to make sure there are no foreign bodies in him, and to ensure that he has no possession of harmful materials that could hurt him prior to his execution.

Warden’s assistant Terry Crenshaw told of a time when a condemned man had once obtained a harmful drug on the day of his execution. The inmate was rushed to the hospital only hours before his scheduled execution. His stomach was pumped, his life was saved and then he was taken back to H-unit where his court ordered execution was carried out — a few hours late.

On the day of execution, the death row inmate will not be allowed to take any personal effects to the holding cell with him, except for a bible a maybe a couple of paintings. It is in this cell where he will eat his last meal, any food choice he desires, as long as it costs $15 or less and can be found within McAlester’s city limits.

He will be allowed to have last phone calls and visits and a meeting with his spiritual advisor, if he chooses. Anytime the inmate leaves this cell for a visit, he is showered and receives a new set of clothes. There are “three officers that will monitor and log his every movement,” Crenshaw said. “There’s nothing he does that isn’t logged on the day of execution.”

Then, as the fateful hour nears, the inmate will move from the holding cell to the shower cell, about a foot away, where he will shower for the last time and get yet another clean set of clothes.

He will then be afforded the opportunity to walk freely, for the first time since being on death row. He will walk another couple feet into the execution chamber, where the Warden, a clock, a gurney and lethal cocktail of drugs awaits him.

He will have IVs put in both of his arms, which are strapped to the gurney, and then he will wait.

When the time nears, victim family members will enter the witness room, through a door on the other side of the execution chamber. That door is colored bright yellow — and this is the door that all witnesses step through when attending an execution at the prison.

Media witnesses, as well as witnesses designated on behalf of the inmate, will then enter the execution viewing room, where an ominous phone rests on one wall.

There is an open line to the governor’s office, and when it is time, and no stay is granted, the phone is hung up, and another phone, into the execution chamber, is used to let the warden know it is time to begin.

Shades, used to cover a window between the viewing room and the death chamber, are raised and the execution process begins.

“Do you have any last words,” the warden will ask.

The condemned man will have about two minutes to speak before the warden says, “let the execution begin.” And three executioners, identities disguised and in yet another room adjacent to, but hidden from, the death chamber, administer the three-drug lethal cocktail.

The executioners, chosen previously by the warden, are picked up earlier in the day at an undisclosed location, to keep their identities private. They are then transported to the prison, with their faces hooded, and are the first to enter the execution room. They are also the last to leave the execution room and they do so wearing the same hoods they wore when they entered.

The three-drug cocktail begins to have its effect on the inmate. He loses consciousness. Then he loses life. A physician is on hand and announces time-of-death. And a death row inmates time on death row is complete.

Contact Rachel Petersen at