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Raffique Shah


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Return to savagery

July 10, 2005
By Raffique Shah

LIVING in a cell that's adjacent to "void" below the gallows, where the body of the executed prisoner plunges after the executioner pulls the lever, where life is snuffed out at the State's will, was quite an experience. The authorities shifted around prisoners as they saw fit, and since the two cells to the north of the block beneath that section of Death Row were separated from that "chamber of death" only by a wall, for those of us who, from time to time, occupied them, we came as close to this macabre ritual as anyone could. I spent a few months there, during which time several executions were carried out. As one who was firmly against capital punishment since I was in my early 20s, I can tell you the experience was anything but pleasant.

I mentioned in my two previous columns on this topic that when the rebels of 1970 were incarcerated, hangings took place on Tuesday mornings. When there was one, it would take place at exactly 7 a.m. If there were two, the other would follow at 8 a.m. All prisoners were locked in their cells by 6:30 a.m., and there would be a higher-then-normal presence of officers on the compound. Having gained experience from previous executions, we knew exactly what to expect. As the prison clock started its chime for the appointed hour, a stillness would descend on the entire jail. Suddenly, those in the cells I referred to would hear a loud "clang!" We knew then that the executioner had pulled the lever, that the metal trap-doors had been released (hence the noise), and that whoever happened to be the hapless bugger destined to die, was swinging at the end of the rope, hopefully dead, but one never knew, maybe being strangled, fighting to breathe his final breaths.

On one such occasion, in order to monitor more closely what took place, I placed a stool on a small table in my cell that allowed me to look onto the open courtyard. That's how I found out there was a large contingent of officers present, presumably for security reasons. Interestingly, in that case most were very young officers, having just joined the service. I had mentioned earlier that the hanged body was made to "swing" for around 45 minutes before it was taken down by a group of prisoners, placed on a crude stretcher, and carried to the equally crude slab of concrete in another section of the jail that served as the autopsy point.

In the instance referred to above, there were two executions scheduled. After I heard the 7 a.m. "clang!", I climbed onto the stool to peep outside, to see what was happening. Some 15 minutes or so after the first execution, the officers gathered under a shed that was at one end of the courtyard, directly opposite a huge metal door with a grille, behind which the executed man was hanging. The officers could not see the body, but they could see the rope swinging. I saw a few of the younger ones look in that direction with curiosity, and a few moved their hands to reflect how the rope swung. They were then served sandwiches and tea, their breakfast, I presumed.

I wondered then what effect such casual regard for human life would have on these young men. I imagine not all were comfortable eating as a man swung dead mere metres away. But it was their job, and soon, with many more executions "under their belts", they would be inured to death. The prisoners whose job it was to remove the body showed no emotions. They, too, had grown immune to the taking of human lives. At the crude "morgue" I described above, I understood the prisoners would help the doctor cut the body to determine "cause of death". The gore and blood, which they later washed down a nearby drain, also made them wholly insensitive to death. Any wonder many who enter prison as petty offenders or mini-criminals soon graduate into the kind of callous, close-to-beasts killers we have come to live with, and yes, die from, today? When life and death are treated in such a casual manner, are we not breeding people who attach no value to human life, not even their own?

I know of at least one man who was hanged when I was there, and who I remain convinced was innocent of the murder for which he was convicted. There must have been many more, including one who was hanged with the Dole Chadee gang. What bothers me is this. When the State coldly takes life, does it really expect psychopaths and the young and armed to be any less sensitive to human life? We are well on the return path to savagery, to a society void of values, a veritable jungle in which only the strong survive and thrive.