May 7, 2001

Warden Describes Inmates' Last Hours

Inside the 'Death House'
Warden Who Presides Over Executions Recounts the Process

Execution Table
If everything goes as planned, an execution will take less than 15 minutes.

In the six years that Burl Cain has run the massive prison farm at Angola, La., he has watched five inmates be put to death.

The warden controls every aspect of life for more than 5,000 inmates. And it is he who presides over the execution when a condemned prisoner's court appeals have run out.

Cain says he faces the responsibility with the help of his Christian faith, and a Bible verse is never far from his lips. "It says we're to obey the law of the land … and so we read that when we get toward execution, and that gives us the peace to go ahead and do this," he says.

‘We’re Not the Enemy’

The final countdown to an execution begins at dawn, when the condemned inmate is moved to a holding cell in what is known as the "death house." There, the prisoner has several hours with his family to say goodbye.

Cain normally joins inmates for their last meals. He says grace and tries to keep the mood as "upbeat" as possible. In spite of the grim circumstance, he says the prisoners are generally not angry with the warden.

strippingAngola guards practice strapping a condemned prisoner to the table. (

"He'll laugh and … see we're not the enemy," says Cain.

If everything goes as planned, the execution will take less than 15 minutes.

To make sure it goes smoothly, Cain and his team actually rehearse the procedure beforehand, using a guard as a stand-in for the condemned man. Different guards are assigned to secure each strap on the table. The team has to be ready for anything an inmate might do when he realizes his life is about to end.

'Just Do It'

With the inmate strapped down, the curtains on the window to the witness room are closed while paramedics place a heart monitor and two intravenous lines into the prisoner's veins. This can be the longest and toughest part of the entire process.

On one occasion it took more than 30 minutes to find usable veins on the prisoner's arms. The technicians had to unstrap the inmate's arms and ask him to make fists.

"We're sorry it keeps sticking you," Cain remembers the technicians saying. "It's OK, just do it," the prisoner responded.

Drugs Straight From the Prison Pharmacy

In a tiny room next to the execution chamber, drugs commonly used to save lives have been loaded in lethal doses into three large syringes. The first one is sodium pentathol, which puts the prisoner to sleep. The second syringe contains pancuronium bromide, a skeletal muscle relaxant, which paralyzes the prisoner's lungs. The third injection, potassium chloride, causes cardiac arrest.

"Then it's over," says Cain. It takes about four minutes before the prisoner is pronounced dead.

The warden stays in the chamber with the prisoner throughout the process. Cain says most of the men executed under his administration have asked him to hold their hands during their last minutes.

"They want me to hold their hand, because they want to be connected to this world, while they go to the next," he says.

© Copyright 2002 ABC News


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