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Tennessee’s nine-year break in executions ended in August when the state killed Billy Ray Irick by lethal injection. Last week, Edmund Zagorski was executed by electric chair, and David Earl Miller is scheduled to die next month. Tennessee’s machinery of death is back in operation, and it’s had a profound effect on the prisoners.

“We’re on new ground and we’re trying to process it,” the Rev. Joseph Ingle says. “There’s pain and grief. It’s secondary trauma. These guys have known each other for years and years. And they watch while their friend is taken away to be put on death watch before he’s killed.”

For Ingle, too, it’s traumatic. Their minister and friend, he is as close to the men as they are to each other. He compares sitting with them on death watch to “being in a vise, an emotional vise. And you’re cranking it so it gets tighter and tighter. You’re in a situation of unimaginable pressure, and it gets greater and greater as it gets closer.”

But he can’t imagine not being there with them. “These people are my friends. I’m just trying to be a good friend. Ed Zagorski would have given his life for me. They’ve done a lot for me over the years. They’ve given me so much in terms of love and compassion and concern. They’ve enriched my life tremendously. I’m the beneficiary of the relationship. I’m blessed to live a life where I have found people like this.”

Ingle has been working with death row prisoners for over 40 years. And the most important thing he learned in all that time is that “People change. They grow, they mature. None of these guys are the guys they were when they came in. We all change over the years. These guys are no different.” 

A United Church of Christ minister, Ingle began working in prisons when he was still a student at Union Theological Seminary in East Harlem. As part of a work/study program, he began visiting prisoners in the Bronx House of Detention. There, on a cell block of 44 men, all, except for one, people of color, and all too poor to post bond, he saw first-hand the injustice of the American criminal justice system and knew he had found his calling – to minister to the imprisoned.

He moved to Tennessee in 1974 and, working with Will Campbell, who had been one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organized the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons, working in eight Southern states to abolish the death penalty, develop alternatives to incarceration, halt the booming prison construction industry, and defend the civil and human rights of prisoners.

“There were 200,000 people locked up and we thought we ought to do something about it. It was pretty intense, working with legislators and governors trying to reform prisons, abolish the death penalty. We filed a class action lawsuit in 1983 (Grubbs v. Bradley) alleging that the whole prison system was unconstitutional based on overcrowding, and won. It was really the beginning of a major turnaround in Tennessee. Under the direction of a special master we were able to make some major changes in 1984 and got millions of dollars to build and improve prisons,” he explains.

The Tennessee State Prison was one of those shut down, and in its place the state built the Riverbend Maximum Security Prison and located its death row there. Ingle began his death row ministry.

“We created a village over the years out there,” he says. “The prisoners are out of their cells all day long. There are arts and crafts, there’s a library and a law library. They’re the best-behaved prisoners in the entire prison. It’s the only death row like it in the South.”

From 1960 to 2000, there were no executions in Tennessee, even though the death penalty was reinstated there in 1976. The hiatus ended in April 2000, when Robert Glen Coe was executed, with five more men executed over the next nine years. Another nine-year break followed, ending with Irick’s execution in August.

In a phone interview before Zagorski was executed last Thursday, Ingle said he wouldn’t be able to talk afterward, “because I won’t be in good shape for a while. But I have my wife, and my farm. I can look out my window and see the dogwood trees, green grass, blue sky, and my dog sleeping on the floor. And after a while, I’ll feel regenerated and restored. I believe in a benevolent God, and somehow that God is going to see us through this ordeal. I’ll take one day at at a time, and remember what Scripture said, ‘I have set before you life and death. Now choose life.’ ”

Ingle doesn’t see the death penalty ending any time soon. He believes that until we evolve to being a society that practices restorative justice instead of retributive justice, we’ll have the death penalty. He finds Tennessee especially disheartening because it’s ramping up instead of following the downward trend of many other states. Zagorski and Irick executed in the past few months, David Earl Miller scheduled for next month, and “Ten more guys lined up. I can’t see an end to it, not in my lifetime.”

Joseph B. Ingle is the author of Last Rights: 13 Fatal Encounters with the State’s Justice; The Inferno: A Southern Morality Tale; Slouching Towards Tyranny: Mass Incarceration, Death Sentences, and Racism; and The Inferno: A Southern Morality Tale, an account of his friendship with Philip Workman, a Tennessee inmate who was executed after 25 years on death row.

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