Saturday, April 20, 2013

Our "senior trip"...

Most high school kids go off to some interesting or exotic place when they become seniors.  I guess, in my case, the place my senior class went for the "senior trip" was exotic and interesting enough, though it wasn't an overnight trip.  My senior year of high school was actually full of interesting field trips, to include a trip to a local medical school, where my biology classmates and I saw cadavers.  We also went caving and visited the National Zoo in Washington, DC.  I skipped at least three other field trips because I didn't have the money to go.  But probably the most interesting of all the trips we took was the one that took us to the State Penitentiary in Virginia.

The Virginia State Pen was a very old structure that had received its first prisoners in 1800.  If you click the link, you can see some photos of the place, which was eventually demolished.  It sat next to the James River in downtown Richmond, Virginia.

In the spring of 1990, when we had our field trip, the Pen was about to be closed down.  There were still inmates there when we came to visit the place.  I remember how my classmates and I were each frisked, then shown into this huge cell block that had several tiers of tiny cells.  The place was painted light blue and there was a smell of human filth, sweat, and detergent in the air.  The building was obviously very antiquated and unpleasant.  It needed to be torn down or renovated.

Gazing up, I could see the huge windows allowed birds to come in.  They flew near the ceiling and probably mocked the inmates with their ability to come and go at will.  On the floor, I spied a dead mouse that looked like it had been there for awhile.  A heavily muscled guy with a mullet wore a wide leather belt with a set of handcuffs prominently displayed in a case as he led us through the facility.  He didn't wear a uniform, though he obviously worked at the prison.

The inmates were in a different part of the prison when we visited.  I remember looking at the first big cell block, which was apparently vacated as inmates were transferred to other facilities.  We also visited death row, which had also been vacated.  Some inmates were in a yard nearby as we made our way to the death house.  They shouted and jeered at us.  I remember the death row cells were a lot larger than the ones in the cell block.  They had bars all around them and a lone television set was mounted on a pole that would have allowed all of the inmates to watch it.

At the end of the hall was the electric chair, which Virginia used to execute a lot of men until lethal injection became the preferred way to put condemned people to death.  Several of my classmates sat on the big oak chair.  I remember one teacher actually pretended to strap a couple of students in.  Back then, it was kind of a joke, but today, it seems kind of inappropriate and not that funny.  Virginia is a notorious death penalty state.

I remember after we saw the penitentiary, we went to Virginia Commonwealth University for lunch.  Two of my sisters are VCU graduates, so I was somewhat familiar with the place.  By then, I knew I was headed to Longwood for college.

It was an eerie day... and probably the day that I first started to have ambivalent feelings about the death penalty.  


  1. I certainly have ambivalent feelings. Under the prsent system, it's pointless, as the costs related to the appeals process far exceed keeping a prisoner alove for the rest of his life, and also statistics seem to indicate it's not necessarily a deterrrent to crime. the way the poor face it disproportionately is a major burden to me.

    And how it can be given when there's the slightest doubt s to the cirminal's guilt - not just reasonable doubt but any doubt whatsoever - seems wrong to me. Take the Scott and laci peterson case. though I did not sit on the jury so what i think really doesn't matter in this case. For the sake of argument I'll say that i was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that scott peterson killed his wife. i was quite comfortable with the jury's decision. I have no problem with a conviction based solely on circumstantial evidence if it's sufficiently compelling and if there's enough of it. Convicting a person on circumstantial evidence and locking him up for life is one thing, though, while putting him to death is quite another. Death is too permanent a sentence when there's even one chance in ten thousand, however slight that is, that some evidence could come to light at a later date to exonerate the guy. Sure, he still would have had a substantial portion of his life essentially taken from him, but at least he wouldn't be six feet under.

    While I believe I would be able to pull a trigger to save my own life or the life of someone I loved or whom I was charged to protect, or the life of a child, after the fact, I do not think I could flip a switch to release chemicals into a person's body to put him to death no matter what the person did, even had it been it to a person I loved more than ayonein the world.

    I understand that not everyone shares my opinion.

  2. I totally agree with you, Alexis. While I can't say the death penalty is always inappropriate, I do think that in the vast majority of cases, it's inappropriate. Whether or not a person gets the death penalty has a lot to do with their race, how much money they have, where they happened to commit their crime, and who the victim was. I don't know Virginia's law now, but for many years, defense attorneys only had 21 days to present new evidence that might exonerate their client. After that, it was too late. Here's a somewhat recent link that mentions the rule.

    I think Scott Peterson is a scumbag, but he's probably never going to be put to death. California's death row is pretty backed up, last time I checked. Meanwhile, taxpayers have to pay for the extra security required for him. And, like you say, if there's even the slightest shadow of a doubt that he could be innocent, it's wrong to put him to death. Juries have been wrong before. How do you apologize for wrongly executing someone? You can't.

    I also think that the death penalty has got to be difficult for those who have to carry it out. And I don't know that it really brings a lot of closure, either. It also hurts the families of the prisoners.

    In any case, I think the death penalty, as it's administered today, is barbaric. I'm against it in almost all cases.

    I am glad we got to see the Pen, though. It was one of the better field trips. My school was pretty progressive for as rural as it was.


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