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Warden Don Cabana

152 x 152 cm 

Oil on canvas 2008

Warden Mississippi State Penitentiary

1984-91, 2004-5

Don Cabana has spent over 35 years in the US prison service. In the 1980s he served for 5 years as Warden of Mississippi State Penitentiary, the maximum security prison commonly known as Parchman. During this time he supervised two executions, that of Edward Earl Johnson and Connie Ray Evans.

After leaving Parchman in 1989 he spent twelve years teaching criminal justice and began openly questioning the wisdom of the death penalty. 

 

 

 

Don subsequently became Warden of the Harrison County Adult Detention Center in Gulfport, which does not have a death row.

The 1987 documentary film Fourteen Days in May, follows the two weeks leading up to the execution of Edward Earl Johnson and gives an insight into Don’s role as warden. Don has written a book, Death at Midnight, about his time at Parchman.

Separated by a vast paper-strewn desk, I was struck by the isolation and loneliness of a man whose job involved the deliberate termination of another man’s life. This large man with the laid back southern drawl was an enigma. As a committed Catholic, he has struggled to come to terms with his role as executioner, particularly as he believes Edward Earl Johnson was innocent.

A complex combination of social worker and executioner, his compassion for inmates and their families contrasted sharply with the harsh reality of guilt and responsibility. Even when he had doubts over the guilt of the condemned, Don took the final responsibility for ending a life. The job he loved for all the right reasons ultimately trapping him in a struggle with conscience and faith.

At a hearing in Minnesota Don told legislators "However we do it, in the name of justice, in the name of law and order, in the name of retribution, you . . . do not have the right to ask me, or any prison official, to bloody my hands with an innocent person's blood. . .  If we wrongfully incarcerate somebody, we can correct that wrong. But if we execute an innocent person by mistake, what is it we're supposed to say —  Oops?" 

Part of the interview with Don Cabana is available to listen to below but the quality may be poor so please click the button for the transcript.

“Everytime I executed someone it was like a little bit of me was dying along with them"

 

"I walked out of that chamber convinced he was innocent."

 

"The hardest things was to have to tell a mother that it was time to say goodbye to her son."