Handcuffed

“America’s 43 executions in 2011 ranked it fifth in the world in capital punishment,” according to a March 27, 2012 Time magazine article by Peter James Spielmann.

Television shows such as “Law and Order” rarely show what happens after a convicted person has been sentenced to death.

In a rare interview, former Region I Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Mr. Lepher Jenkins, a gentle giant of a man, spoke of his experience supervising executions.

Jenkins spent more than 40 years working in the corrections department of the criminal justice field, three of those years he spent as the director of Region I, the region responsible for carrying out capital punishment.

Born in the prison town of Huntsville, TX, he started his career in corrections while attending Sam Houston State University. The majority of his career Jenkins commuted to the various prisons at which he worked, while his family remained in the Sugarland-Richmond area of Texas. His longest commute was from Holly Springs, MS, an 11 hour drive, one-way.

Generally Jenkins made it home every other weekend to visit with his family but, while in MS, he averaged a trip home only once a month.

Early on, his wife and son lived on the premises of the Goree Unit, which was centrally located in Huntsville, TX. It took some time for his family to adjust to living on prison grounds. His son would complain that he wasn’t an inmate, but Jenkins reminded him that living at a prison meant there were certain things that he just could not do. For a nine-year-old that meant a lonely, restricted life.

Later, they decided that Jenkins’ wife and son would stay in Sugarland so his son could attend a new 5A high school where he would have the opportunity to participate in competitive sports, something Jenkins rarely got to see.

In 1998 Jenkins returned to Huntsville, but not without more sacrifice. When Jenkins was asked to move from Region IV to Region I, this transfer came with the grave understanding that he would be responsible for supervising capital punishment.

The Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, also known as the Huntsville Unit, is located in Region I and is the only Prison unit in Texas where capital punishment is carried out. The Unit is nicknamed the “Walls Unit” for the red brick wall that surrounds the prison.

This change in jobs was not a decision that Jenkins took lightly. “I don’t believe that anybody- the state, the government, a person- has the right to take a life,” Jenkins said.

Before going to his first execution, Jenkins met with his mentor, who had been Jenkins’ Boy Scout troop leader, his instructor in elementary and junior high school and his football coach. He was also a minister.

After explaining his feelings about the death penalty to his mentor, Jenkins asked, “If I go through with this, am I a hypocrite?”

Jenkins did not get the answer he expected. “I wanted him to say that, ‘if you go through with this, you’re going to go to hell’… but he didn’t give me that. He basically put it right back on me and said, ‘you’ve got to stand with your conviction’.”

During his first execution, Jenkins was involved in every step of the process. He watched as the inmate was brought into the Walls Unit from the Polunsky Unit, where the Death Row inmates are housed. He was beside six armed-guards as they tied the inmate to the gurney. He read the inmate’s file from beginning to end before he escorted the inmate into the execution chamber. He watched as an emergency medical technician (EMT) set the intravenous (IV) drip feed. He stood in front of the one-way mirror as the drugs pulsed through the inmate’s body.

“… I watched the life go out that man’s body. I watched his eyes. And that was the worst part of the whole process, ” Jenkins said in a soft voice as he recalled the memory.

“That night, I went by the local liquor store and bought a bottle of Crown Royal and got drunk.”

From that day on, Jenkins would go through the process- from escorting the inmate in to the chamber to setting the IV. After he read the inmate’s file, Jenkins would then go to the room off to the left of the execution chamber where the EMT, another regional supervisor and the two men who had volunteered to push the chemicals would wait during the final stages of the process.

He would stand at the window so that he could see all but the face of the convicted. It was not until the medical examiner had declared the time of death and the inmate’s face was covered with a cloth that Jenkins would return to the chamber.

Jenkins had found his way to make peace with doing his job and without losing his sanity.

After each execution Jenkins visited with every person who participated in the process to ask how he or she was and if anyone needed any assistance, referring to the emotional toll each person faced.

But no one ever asked Jenkins how he was handling the responsibility. Instead, Jenkins would often visit with the chaplain at the Goree Unit for comfort, or spend hours driving around just talking.

“That was my way of dealing with it,” he said.

After the 1998 execution of Karla Faye Tucker, the first female execution in Texas since the Civil War, Jenkins lost all six members of the volunteer tie-down team. “They said they couldn’t do it anymore,” remembers Jenkins.

Of the 95 inmates executed, 92 of them walked in to the Walls Unit without resisting. One man didn’t fight, but said he just couldn’t make himself take the steps to walk out of his holding cell. One man was wheeled in on a gurney because of an attempted suicide several days before his execution date.

The third man, Gary Graham, a young black man, had supporters such as Reverend Jesse Jackson, Amnesty International’s Bianca Jagger and Reverend Al Sharpton, who orchestrated month-long protests.

Quanell X and the Black Panthers were on one side of the protests trying to prevent the execution while the KKK was on the other side supporting the execution.

Graham had encouraged his supporters to arm themselves to keep the TDCJ (Texas Department of Criminal Justice) from executing him.

Jenkins had to transfer Graham from the Polunsky Unit to the Walls Unit a day early and in secret. Once inside the Walls Unit, Graham stopped fighting.

Jim Willit, one of two wardens at the Walls Unit during Jenkins’ tenure in Region I, wrote a book about his experiences. But Jenkins does not feel he needs to read the book because he lived the experience.

Jenkins has been approached on many occasions and told he could make a lot of money if he wrote a book about his experiences. His response “That’s not something I want to make money on. Telling you what? T
elling you stories of me putting to death 95 folks? That’s not the kind of money I want to make. “

In the three years he served as the director over Region I, Jenkins oversaw the execution of 95 prisoners, of which 2 were women. He cannot remember all the names of those executions- only those associated with major issues. “I can’t tell you a name because I can’t put a face with a name,” he says, “I don’t want to put a face with a name.”

Related Stories

More from Paisano1

Editorial Board

At the University of Missouri, real change happened — but only when loss of university revenue was threatened. Missouri student…

More In News

Alejandro Lopez Co-News Editor

UTSA fraternities and sororities collected clothing donations for Sigma Pi’s 8th annual clothing drive on April 7 at Aspen Heights.…