Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

Before the Hangman Arrives

Lloyd Vogelman

It's chilling to arrive on death row at Pretoria Central Prison. "The first time I wore the prison clothes," a former death row inmate remembers, "it was funny wearing them because I was thinking about the people who were wearing them before me. I think those people are already dead. Wearing these clothes you can never be free because all the time you are thinking about those who are dead."

The cells, which are sometimes quite miserable, must also shock the new prisoners. Paulos Tshehlane, a mineworker who spent 16 months on death row before the appeal court overturned his conviction, says his cell had a bed, five dirty blankets, a toilet, and a tray table that flapped out of the wall. There was no chair.

Prisoners who are literate spend their spare time writing letters to loved ones and reading censored newspapers, library books, the Bible, and transcripts of their case. Much time is taken up, particularly for those who are not literate, speaking to each other, singing, and praying. Much of this is done in place of sleep, which is in short supply because of anxiety and because the cell light is left on 24 hours a day. Prisoners generally remain on death row, in these conditions, for several months – even two or three years for some – before they're executed.

Inmates fantasise about the daily censorship of their newspaper. While the reasons for the censorship are not plain, missing newspaper articles are often incorrectly interpreted by death row prisoners as an attempt by the authorities to hide information about their particular cases. For most, this is both a hopeful and a persecutory fantasy since their cases actually receive little media attention.

Friendships develop quickly on death row. This is partly due to the prisoners' commonality of experience, partly because there is little time to waste. The inmate's isolation and anxiety propel him to cling to anyone who can provide support.

Often, the newfound friends discuss the future; they simply deny death. Two inmates spoke of setting up a business together and debated where they would live, in Cape Town or Johannesburg. This helped them preserve the notion that their future consists of making everyday decisions.

But not all relationships with other prisoners are supportive. The condemned often play sadistic practical jokes on newcomers.

One new inmate, for example, was told when he first arrived that during the night a rope would come from his cell's ceiling and throttle him. Consequently, he did not sleep and remained vigilant all night.

A popular myth passed down over the years by death row prisoners is that one does not die on the day of "the execution".

Instead of hanging and plummeting through the opening of the floorboards and dying, you are dropped into the pit alive. There below the floorboards, you live and work. According to the myth, you work in the government mint, and the mountain that lies behind Pretoria prison is the soil that has been dug up to enlarge the mint and accommodate its extra residents and workers.

The belief in myths, like religious convictions, provides the prisoners with hope, which is necessary for psychological survival.

When death row prisoners receive their official date of execution, they are moved to a group of cells called the "pot." Prisoners are normally transferred to the pot seven days before they are to hang. The term was apparently coined because prisoners believe it to be the place people "stew before they die."

The move to the pot is done quickly. The prisoners are asked for their "baadjie en adres" – their clothes and the address to which the clothes should be sent after their execution.

From the pot, the prisoners are taken for neck and body measurements so the death-inducing materials can be properly prepared. The ropes need to be the right strength, and the length of the rope needs to be worked out in relation to the individual's weight.

Meticulous preparation is designed to make the condemned die as quickly and cleanly as possible. This decreases the trauma that a more lengthy execution would cause for both those awaiting death and the executioner. It also limits the possibility of hysterical outbursts or resistance by the condemned.

The cells in the pot are like the inmates' previous cells, but the contents are different. Former inmates say there is no mattress, which makes sleep more difficult.

Prisoners are not permitted to have their toothbrush and toothpaste with them.

Clothing requirements also change – shoes have to be left outside the cell – and prisoners are not allowed vests and underpants. The idea, it appears, is to prevent the occupants from committing suicide.

In the pot, prisoners are not permitted to exercise outside. This does not seem to bother them too much because they get a new privilege, permission to speak whenever they wish.

There are as many as seven prisoners in the pot, and reports suggest they are often manic. They laugh, make jokes, fantasise about getting married, and speak for the whole night.

The mania sometimes extends to discussions about the process of hanging. They joke about who has the largest neck and how much rope the hangman will need.

Some prisoners discuss in detail the process of hanging.

One even practised what it would be like: "I thought maybe I can't breathe. I used to put my hand over my nose and mouth to see what it is like not to have any air when your neck breaks."

The prisoners' emotions are torn. On the one hand, there is terrible fear of the unknown, of the physical pain, and of leaving their families. On the other hand, there is relief that the trauma is coming to an end.

"In those five days," one former inmate of the pot says, "I am happy to escape this long tortured road I walked through."

By this stage, visits from family members cause terrible anguish and pain. The condemned worry about the consequences of their death. They are upset about being unable to take care of their families. Both the inmate and his family cry. Often they try to lift the spirits of one another, and some family members insist a stay of execution is still possible. Nevertheless, the day before the execution, the last good-byes are said.

It is customary in South Africa for the condemned to receive a tasty last meal the night before their morning execution, a whole deboned chicken. If anxiety does not curb the condemned's appetite, this is often his last taste of food. The night before the execution is filled with the singing of hymns. At about 6 am. a prayer is said with a priest.

"Warders who are present at the service tell us it is time to go," a prison chaplain explains. "We usually know that we must end, but we wait until the last moment. Then the warders say, 'Finish up.' And they take the prisoners."

There have been reports of resistance before the condemned are led to the gallows. In one incident, teargas was used to get the prisoners out of their cells. In another, a prisoner pleaded that he did not want to die and while being led to the gallows excreted in his pants.

These incidents are unusual, however. In general the condemned are said to walk to the gallows quietly.

A Black Sash report, Inside South Africa's Death Factory, describes the execution: "The prisoners ascend the steps to the gallows. Inside the execution chamber the hangman is waiting for them. So is the medical doctor who has to certify the bodies are dead and a policeman who takes a set of fingerprints to ensure the correct person is hanged. The condemned men are lined up – Pretoria's gallows can hang seven at one time. Their wrists are tied behind their backs. A rope is put around each neck with the knot next to an ear. Hoods are fastened over their faces. When all is in order the executioner pulls a lever which opens the trap door and the condemned men drop."

What happens to the body? Chris Barnard, South Africa's pioneer heart surgeon, writes: "The man's spinal cord will rupture at the point where it enters the skull, electrochemical discharges will send his limbs flailing in a grotesque dance, eyes and tongue will start from the facial apertures under the assault of the rope and his bowels and bladder may simultaneously void themselves to soil the legs and drip onto the floor."

When a person is hanged, the rope is jerked with such force that it not only breaks the subject's neck but leaves a severe rope burn.

As to whether the executed feel any pain, Barnard says: "It may be quick. We do not know as none has survived to vouch for it. We make the assumption that the dance macabre is but a reflection of a disconnected nervous system...and the massive trauma of the neck tissues and spinal column does not register in that area of the human psyche where horror dwells."

For this article, Vogelman interviewed eight former inmates who all served more than a year on death row at Pretoria Central.

This article is excerpted from the South African Journal on Human Rights (SAJHR), Vol. 5, Part 2, 1989.

Lloyd Vogelman is a founder and former Director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
In Frontline, November 1989.

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