Photo: Bobby Allen
70-two hours before death row inmates are executed, they are placed under constant surveillance by prison guards. For nearly a decade, it was Bobby Allen’s job to monitor these condemned men as they awaited their fate in the execution chamber.
In 1981, Allen was only 22 years old when he started working on death row watch for the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Butts County.
Two years later, a man named John Eldon Smith was the first person in Georgia sentenced to execution by electric chair since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976. Smith was sentenced to death for the murder of his wife’s ex-husband and his new wife in Macon, Georgia.
“Most of the staff was young … in our 20s and early 30s … and we really didn’t know what to do,” Allen tells us. “I mean, we had received execution orders before, but hadn’t carried them out until now.”
Smith’s execution was scheduled for 8 a.m., which turned out to be a “huge mistake,” because “there were so many protests and all of the TV stations from Atlanta were down there reporting.”
For the next few years, Allen tried not to let his personal feelings get involved as he interacted with death row inmates. He never tried to think about their innocence or guilt, but he says those years were extremely confusing and he eventually developed internal “emotional issues” as well as a heavy drinking problem.
“I tried to be professional, but some officers didn’t do that or didn’t care,” he says. “When we executed John Eldon Smith, I remember one of the officers singing Annie’s ‘Tomorrow’ song, but changing the lyrics to ‘We’re going to burn John Smith tomorrow.'”
Allen also remembers some officers proposing an “electric couch” instead of “electric chair” so that “we can do more than one at a time.”
“The coldness stuck with me throughout the years. The state had a psychologist talk to the inmates, but the staff didn’t have anyone to talk to. They didn’t think it was an issue and I still hold a grudge against them for that.”
Although Allen tried to remain detached from inmates awaiting the end of their lives, he says it was hard not to feel the uneasy emotions that come with that kind of duty.
In 1985, Roosevelt Green, Jr. was waiting to be executed for raping and killing a young girl less than a mile away from Allen’s childhood home. The victim’s last name was also Allen.
“I had a lot of interactions with Green. He was a very angry individual. I believe it was January when he received his sentence and my captain and I took him back to the holding cell, which is just a few feet away from the electric chair.”
Before his death, Allen remembers that Green stuck his hand through the jail bars, shook the correctional officer’s hand and apologized for any problems he’d caused during his time at the prison.
“He looked right in my eyes. Later, I saw the hearse go by and it was a strange feeling. I never got used to it … taking the men to the holding cell, then seeing the hearse pass by after that. In many ways, we were the only friends these men had in the end.”
Most of the time, the men didn’t talk about the crimes they’d committed. Instead, Allen remembers “very normal” conversations and men who were at peace with their grim circumstances.
“These guys would usually walk right up to the electric chair. They weren’t forced by the staff. By that point, they’ve already accepted what will happen.”
Allen tells us that a man named Jerome cried when his death sentence was reversed and he was placed back on death row watch. “It was really difficult watching people who had to deal with their lives coming to an end and it did not end up being a good decision for my spiritual beliefs.”
To this day, Allen has “mixed feelings” about his former job and says he doesn’t think that he “fulfilled what [he] was supposed to do.”
“I think I was supposed to ease some of their pain, but I don’t think I did that. I will say this: I don’t believe that when we execute a person that it’s the same person who committed that crime. I do believe people can change.”
“In fact, there was a man named William Neal Moore who was coming up for execution. He was hours away from being executed and was very calm and very strong in his spiritual beliefs.” Right before he was scheduled to face his death, Moore’s case was overturned and today, he is an ordained minister who preaches at prisons and youth detention centres all over the country.
However, Allen has also witnessed individuals on the “other end of the scale” who “cannot live in society because they will kill again. Whether they should be executed or not, I am still unsure,” he says.
Allen is in the process of writing a book about his former job and works as a staff member at the Circle of Love Ministries in Jacksonville, Florida.
The state of Georgia has carried out 52 executions since 1976 and currently houses 97 inmates on death row.
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