Behind the razor wire: A look at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute

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TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) — The U.S. Penitentiary has been part of Terre Haute’s landscape since 1940.

It’s much larger than it was 80 years ago, and is now the only federal prison where executions take place.

Former prison guard, Kevin Beaver described death row as “a very choreographed area.”

He said each cell contains a bed, desk, shower and toilet. He also noted that the area, officially known as “the Confinement Unit” is library quiet.

The local facility is back in the spotlight as the nation waits to hear if executions will move forward.

Earlier this year, the federal government moved to resume executions after a 16-year informal moratorium. Five federal death row inmates were given execution dates in December and January.

Days before the first inmate’s sentence was to be carried out, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to temporarily halt the executions.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington, D.C., made the ruling after some of the chosen inmates challenged the new execution procedures in court. Chutkan ruled that the use of the drug Pentobarbital likely violates the Federal Death Penalty Act.

While the federal executions are tied up in court, Indiana has had the death penalty at the state level since 1977.

Among those sentenced to die was Terre Haute resident Bill Benefiel.

Kidnap, rape murder: The case against the last man executed from Terre Haute

Bill Benefiel’s crimes continue to shock people.

Benefiel, who was the last man executed from Terre Haute, kidnapped two women in Terre Haute and held them captive. He beat and raped them both, eventually killing one, by supergluing her mouth and nose shut.

Phil Adler was the new Vigo County Prosecutor back in 1987. He had been in office for less than a year when police received a tip about Benefiel and his “House of Horror.”

“I figured, if there was ever a death penalty case I was going to be involved in, this had to be the one,” Adler said.

After a three week trial, Adler won the conviction, and the jury recommended the death penalty.

After more than 16 years of appeals, Benefiel was put to death by lethal injection in April of 2005.

According to the state, Benefiel’s last meal was pizza, an Italian beef sandwich, four pints of ice cream and 12 sodas.

When asked if he had any final words, he said, “No, let’s get this over with. Let’s do it.”

Family members of both victims traveled to Michigan City where the execution took place. But, according to media accounts, the surviving victim did not attend.

Due to Indiana state law, none were allowed to watch Benefiel die.

While the death penalty is still legal in Indiana, the last state execution was held in 2009. There are currently nine people sitting on death row.

Since the Department of Justice announced federal executions would resume, advocates against the death penalty have held community forums and vigils to spread awareness.

At age 93, a nun, former spiritual advisor to death row inmate continues to fight against execution

Sister Rita Clare Geradot has been a nun with the Sisters of Providence for 75 years. The petite woman also spent time as the spiritual advisor of federal death row inmate David Paul Hammer.

Geradot would sit and talk to the self-confessed con man and killer. He was convicted of murdering his cellmate, and for that received the death penalty.

“And you get to know a person as a human being who has likes and dislikes, and good points and bad points, just the way all of us do,” Geradot said.

Hammer’s sentence was eventually commuted to life without parole just days before his execution was scheduled to take place.

He passed away in June, but not before writing two books, including one about his time on death row with Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh. The book is still available on Amazon.

Meanwhile, Geradot plans to continue to fight the death penalty until it’s abolished.

“I don’t think we should ever judge people by the worst thing they’ve ever done in their life,” she said. “And if you stop and think, is there something in your own background that you would not want other people to know? So, you have to be ready to forgive.”

Geradot isn’t the only one who found her time working with inmates to be rewarding.

Former death row prison guard encourages students to consider jobs within correctional system

Now an instructor in the Criminology Department at Indiana State University, Kevin Beaver spent 20 years working at the Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute.

Beaver said he enjoyed the job.

“The characters are there. The people, the staff,” he said. “It’s just an amazing place I didn’t even know existed. As soon as I was in there the first day, I was hooked. Fascinating conversation with inmates there. Very intriguing.”

Beaver worked in the prison from 1995 to 2005. Part of that time, he was a guard on death row.

“Anytime they come out, they’re completely restrained, and there’s multiple people supervising that activity,” he said.

He later became a case worker, helping inmates manage their time in prison and preparing for life after release.

“I felt like I was really making a difference every single day in someones life able to help them, help the institute facilitate the day, help them accomplish their intermitten successs everyday which is a very rewarding place to work,” he said.

Beaver’s goal now is to help students look at the federal prison system as an important career option.

A recent job posting by the bureau of prisons offers starting pay for a correctional officer at $41,868 up to $60,278.

Beaver did well from the beginning.

“I was able to buy a house right after my first year and a truck and just like you’ll see young men and women who work there,” he said. “They start buying the new cars, yeah, it’s a good living.”

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