This two-part series sees veteran presenter Sir Trevor McDonald come face to face with some of the world’s most dangerous criminals as he gets exclusive access to one of America’s oldest and most notorious prisons.
Housing 1900 inmates, 12 of whom are on death row, Trevor spends two weeks in the dark and forbidding world of Indiana State Maximum Security Prison. He hears from men who know what it is like to live under the shadow of the death penalty and even the date and time they will die.
He makes many visits to I Cell House, which houses Death Row. He meets a man whose crimes are so heinous that they even shock the other killers on the row; a man who was paid to kill two people; the inmate who killed a policeman and a man who killed his wife and two young daughters.
He comes to understand the bitter tensions on the row amongst the inmates and witnesses some extraordinary encounters, including the warden coming face to face with a prisoner whose life he’ll, ultimately, be responsible for taking.
Many of the death row offenders are convicted of the most heinous of crimes and in one memorable encounter hearing details of one prisoner’s crimes becomes almost too much for Trevor.
These documentaries also follow Trevor as he meets inmates in the wider prison facility serving long sentences for unspeakable crimes. One man tells Trevor that he is serving 170 years behind bars after killing two elderly ladies when he was just 13 years old.
Plus, Trevor, visits the chilling room where the executions take place. He sees the holding cell where prisoners spend their last few hours alive and the bed where they are strapped down and injected with a fatal dose of chemicals. And he meets the man most likely to be the next to be executed.
The first episode sees Trevor step onto death row for the first time as he meets the 12 condemned men.
The prisoners will spend up to 20 years on the row with little contact with the rest of the prison. Their cells are their homes, with some of them even being allowed a pet cat.
Benjamin Ritchie, who is sentenced to death for shooting and killing a policeman, gives a candid and frank interview to Trevor about why he should be in prison.
He says: “I’m the kind of guy that does need to be in prison. Because I’m the kind of guy, if I get fired from a job, I’ll try to find a job the legal way, but if I can’t find a job, and I can’t pay my bills, I’ll get a gun and I’ll go pay my bills. And I won’t think nothing about it.”
Trevor asks Ritchie where he thinks his life will end up, and he replies: “Either in a box or doing life. That’s my choice right there. I’ve got to watch my wife grown old through these bars.”
Later, Ritchie sits down face to face with Trevor and describes how he ended up on death row. He explains that he was stealing car wheel trims when he was spotted by the police, who began chasing him. Ritchie says he fired his gun to scare the policeman away.
He adds: “If that bullet had been less than an inch lower, he’d be alive today and I’d probably have a lengthy prison sentence, but I wouldn’t be on death row. I didn’t know I’d killed him until I saw it on the news, and that just destroyed me. I knew I’d hit him in the backyard, but I didn’t know he was dead.”
Trevor asks Ritchie what it felt like when he heard that he was being sentenced to death.
He says: “I was trying to portray a tough guy in court, so when they gave me the death sentence, I laughed at them. The prosecutor told everyone, ‘That’s the voice of evil.’
“Which I would agree with at the time, yes. I deserved the death penalty. I was young and I didn’t care about anybody at all but myself.
“But when I was by myself it sunk in. It hit me hard. I put my face in my pillow and cried a little bit.”
Trevor asks Ritchie how he will feel if he is eventually taken to be executed.
He says: “I’d definitely have regret and remorse. But I’d also have a bit of defiance. ‘Why are you killing me? You said killing’s wrong, but you’re premeditatingly strapping me to a table and you’re going to poison me to death. You’re going to kill me.’ That’s what I would resent.”
The first episode also sees Trevor meet Paul McManus, a man who killed his wife and two children. Trevor talks to McManus through his death row cell bars as the murderer reveals that he can’t read or write so he obsessively cleans his cell to pass the time. He also talks about the toll death row has exerted on him.
Trevor accompanies McManus as he is shackled and dressed in red prison overalls, labelled with ‘death row’ on the back, then led to the prison hospital for his daily treatment for diabetes. It is the only way he is allowed to leave death row and step into the rest of the prison.
Trevor also meets inmates out in the general prison population of Indiana State, who are amongst the most serious offenders. They are housed in the administrative segregation wing. The men here are violent gang members, drug dealers and sexual predators and their every move is monitored and carefully controlled.
These prisoners are locked up for 23 hours a day. For the one hour a day where they are allowed to exercise, they are shackled and led to individual steel cages, and only un-shackled once inside, through a small hole in the bars.
Trevor speaks to Ronald L Sanford, through the bars of his exercise cage. Sanford is serving 170 years for a double homicide he committed when he was just 13.
So far he has served 23 years of his sentence. He explains to Trevor his regret at his vile crime. He says: “It’s tragic. It’s unspeakable. Even to reflect on it almost 25 years later. It will stay with me for the rest of my life and be an albatross around my neck.”
Sanford explains to Trevor that, on the day of the murder, he and a friend were trying to earn money by mowing people’s lawns. When one homeowner said they didn’t want their lawn cutting, Sanford and his friend forced their way into the home.
Sanford adds: “We decided to push into the home and it ended in a double homicide. It was that simple. And for my complicit in a crime, I was sentenced to 170 years. Eligible for parole when I turn 100 years old.”
Trevor is touched by Sanford’s story and visits him later in the programme in his tiny cell, which is filled with books and positive messages that he has written on the wall.
He tells Trevor: “The books allow for a great escape and to be able to leave the confines of the walls. Every man in the building feels the confinements that we’re suffering here. You put an animal in a cage for a great amount of time, it goes crazy. How much more so, humans?”
Continuing his journey through the prison, Trevor visits the only part which he feels seems to have a sense of normality about it - the barber’s shop.
All the barbers are convicts. They are amongst the most trusted inmates in the institution and are allowed all the tools of the trade, including scissors and razors, to run their shop. Trevor meets Rick Pearish, who has been at the prison for 37 years and is serving three life sentences plus ten years for robbery and kidnap.
In one moving sequence, Trevor looks at a wall of pictures showing Rick’s life inside, from his days as a young man, to the white haired man he is now.
Pearish tells Trevor: “I wish I was out there doing it right. I wish I could start all over again.”
And, Trevor meets James Harrison, an inmate who escaped death row. Harrison explains that he was just weeks away from being executed when he was offered a ‘deal’ instead when his original trial was found to be compromised. Harrison decided to take 150 years rather than be tried again.
He’s 62-years-old, so knows he will still die inside prison. He explains to Trevor: “It’s still a death sentence, but you have more freedom out here. You might as well take the freedom and live your life. Have a job, go to work, go to chapel. Do that instead of sit up there and wait to die.”