Former Holman warden takes serene outlook after 20 executions

TOM GORDON,The Birmingham News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Strangers still ask Grantt Culliver if they have seen him on television.

Culliver tells them, yes, he was on that MSNBC "Lockup" documentary series on the nation's toughest prisons. He was the warden at Holman Correctional Facility when the camera crews came down in 2006 and 2007.

He usually does not volunteer other details — that he was Holman's warden 2002-09 and that he administered all 20 executions by lethal injection since the state started using the method in 2002.

The number of people who have carried out executions in the U.S., let alone Alabama, is small. If it takes a certain kind of person to work in a prison system, it takes a person with a certain kind of outlook to become an executioner.

"The thing about an execution is that it is not you," said the 50-year-old Brewton area native. "You consider it as the people of the state of Alabama.

"If the people of the state of Alabama didn't want executions ... then they'd vote it out. So ultimately, then, as the warden of that particular facility, that's part of your duty. It's written in the law that way, so basically, you're carrying out the law."

Carrying out that law means more than pushing drugs through syringes that knock the inmate out, then paralyze him and, finally, stop his heart. Culliver knew each condemned inmate and gave him in advance a copy of the death warrant he would read to him on the night of his execution.

He usually answered a host of questions from the inmate's relatives, discussed funeral arrangements and coordinated family visits. He explained to the families that the task facing him and his execution team was not something they relished.

Alabama's most recent execution was in October. A month later, Culliver moved to the Department of Corrections central office in Montgomery to become institutional coordinator for the 15 state prisons in north and central Alabama.

Asked recently if there is anything about the execution process that he would change, Culliver said it might be better if the warden could push one syringe instead of seven. "But overall, I think we have a very good policy."

"It's more serene to do lethal injections because, basically, you administer the drugs and the person goes to sleep," Culliver said. "If it's smooth, that's generally what you see.

"With electrocution, you see the body change. You knew when those 2,200 volts hit and you knew when it dropped back down to 220 volts. It was quite evident; the body would slump."

Culliver witnessed several electrocutions as Holman's assistant warden. "Of course, the chamber at that time was a lot more archaic than it is today. You would get that smell and we'd try our best with exhaust fans to pull that out, but you still would get that.

"If there's such a thing as being humane, then you would say that lethal injection is more humane."

State Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen said the professional security staff of the Department of Corrections — which included Culliver when he was a warden — understands the meaning of words such as "mission" and "duty."

"They know that they, like soldiers, must often subordinate their own personal feelings to accomplish the mission, and they do so every day," Allen said in an e-mail.

It was part of Culliver's job as Holman's warden to keep tabs on a condemned inmate, to see how he was handling his approaching death. Culliver said he would usually make a final visit on the night before execution day and lend an ear if the inmate had something he wanted to say.

"I've had guys who, of course, (knew) that this was going to happen and felt like they had made amends and had changed their livesspiritually ... all the way to guys who were still saying, 'I was intoxicated, I don't know really what happened, I don't think I did it, I'm pretty sure I didn't do it,' da-da-da-da-da."

One inmate even asked Culliver if he could die with his cowboy boots on.

The warden told him no. "It's just policy," Culliver said. "You're not allowed to have cowboy boots in the prison, and you're not going to be allowed to die in them."

Execution duty was only an occasional part of Culliver's job at the 1,000-inmate, maximum-security prison outside Atmore in south Alabama.

The "Lockup" documentary on Holman began with the narrative: "It requires a unique set of skills to run a violent prison like Holman, and warden Grantt Culliver embodies them. He's authoritative, dynamic and tough."

One segment showed Culliver telling a weeping inmate that his performance was not going to win him an Academy Award. Another segment showed him telling a reluctant prisoner he would get him an ice cream cone if he would take his needed shot of medicine, then helping hold him for the injection when he continued to balk.

Because of his size — Culliver stands 6 feet 2 1/2 and weighs 270 pounds — he brought a strong physical presence to Holman's cellblocks. While physical strength was an asset he sometimes needed as a correctional officer, he did not rely on it much as a warden.

"Most of the time, there were more brains used than brawn," he said. "And most of the times, I was ... able to talk a situation out and get a person to do the things that they needed to as opposed to actually using force to do that."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.