Goodyear, AZ—In this hot dusty town just west of Phoenix sits the Perryville Prison. It was built in 1980 to relieve overcrowding in the state’s rapidly growing prison system. It began with a population of all men. It was intended to be only a medium security prison.
Women serving time in Arizona were housed at an old Phoenix motel sitting on the Northwest corner of 32nd and Van Buren Streets. The State converted the motel to a prison but inside it was still a motel by all appearances. The Drug War had this facility nearly bursting from overpopulation. Today women are housed in the much larger Perryville and now it’s an all women’s prison.
Professionally, I’ve been in countless jails and prisons in scores of states. I’ve eaten in their staff dining areas and have even slept in them overnight on occasion. Along the way I have sat in the Cook County Jail’s well-used electric chair and Arizona’s Gas Chamber in Florence. I’ve also been inside modern lethal injection rooms in Arizona, Texas and Illinois.
On December 3, 1989, I was asked to get inside Maricopa County’s new Madison Street Jail to interview Debra Milke. She’d just been arrested so she was in the receiving area finishing up the booking procedure being photographed and fingerprinted. I could see the remains of black fingerprint ink on her fingers. We were given a quiet corner inside the “Horse shoe” area to talk privately. We sat on a small wooden bench and talked. I taped the entire interview using a hidden tape recorder.
Milke was accused of a crime that placed her at the lowest possible social level in a correctional setting. She was an accused baby killer. The staff and inmates assumed her guilt for the monstrous crime and treated her accordingly. I’ve heard accounts of this treatment from Milke, Maricopa County Jail detention officers, lawyers and a decade later Milke’s own mother.
Milke was a celebrity pariah in jail. She was really hated. Although she was going through incredible misery Milke was personable and gracious with everyone. Many staff members of the jail grew to like and believe in her. Other’s just wanted to see Milke dead.
Particularly in the beginning, fellow inmates tampered with Milke’s food. One such incident stands out to me as incredibly horrible and cruel. I’m not sure that a detention officer was not involved in the incident. For now those details are locked in my screenplay, Railway to Death Row, The Debra Milke Story.
It was on August 1, 1990, the day before Milke was sentenced to the gas chamber; I again interviewed her for over an hour and a half with a crew from Channel 10. This time it was on camera. This took place at the facility located at 35th and Durango Avenues.
Milke spent most of a year in the Maricopa County jail in a pre-trial and conviction situation. When she was sentenced to death they transported her to Perryville. At the time Perryville had men and women in separate areas.
The Santa Maria Unit housed the new one-woman death row. Later the men were moved out and a maximum-security area was delegated as Death Row inside the Lumley Unit. Two other women eventually joined Milke on this new Death Row. They were each caged in separate 12X7 foot cells.
Perryville has no execution chamber. A condemned woman would have to be transported to the prison in Florence, Arizona for execution. Milke of course was sentenced to the gas chamber but the method was changed to lethal injection and she made the required choice to go with the hot needle. The gas chamber still awaits condemned prisoners that have not elected for lethal injection.
The only woman to ever be executed in Arizona was on February 21, 1930. Eva Dugan was hanged for killing her boss. Her hanging took place at the old CB2 Cell House gallows. Dugan was somewhat overweight and the hangman botched the event as the noose decapitated her. Dugan’s head was sent rolling at horrified spectators. Soon authorities sought less garish ways to execute the condemned and brought in lethal gas and today IV poisons.
Perryville has no air conditioning for the inmates, only evaporative coolers that can’t keep up with the sweltering summers. Milke is limited to three showers per week and had to decide to sleep on the concrete floor where it’s cooler or in her sweat filled bunk.
Milke gets lots of mail much of it from Germany where people abhor the death penalty. Milke has no computer to help reply to the letters and instead writes them in longhand. Milke’s writings contain no misspellings, are grammatically correct and her penmanship is downright pretty.
Her life is absolutely solitary confinement. She sees staff members at meal times when her food is delivered. She is chained up like an animal whenever she leaves her cell for visits or exercise.
Imagine decades without hugs or a reassuring hand on yours during difficult moments. This woman has spent the very best years of her life in a Gulag. She came in vibrant and young. She will soon leave middle-aged and menopausal complete with white hair.
None of us have walked in Milke’s shoes. I can’t help but wonder what trauma she will face in public crowds today. She’s never operated a modern computer or cell phone before. She’s been reduced to cutting her own hair using a nail clipper because she has no other way.
I think of a nice German TV (ARD) reporter I worked with on this story about a year ago. She was affluent, traveled and cultured. She quickly noticed that there was an Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door Salon at the Biltmore Fashion Park in Phoenix. She could not wait to book some time there for the treatment.
I thought of Milke and how terrific it could be for her to spend a day at the Red Door getting ready to face a new world she’s never seen. Milke has been wearing only bright orange jumpsuits and sneakers for over two decades. I can’t imagine she does not long to dress up to the nines for an event or social setting. Milke has lots of clothing, pre-1989 but now she will need a new wardrobe. Restaurants, entertainment venues and technology will all have surprises for Milke who’s been locked in a time capsule for so long.
Milke has great adventures and challenges ahead. She will never get those years of her life returned. She will move on and make the best of the time she has left. Just how will people react to Milke today?
How could the lies of a dirty cop do so much damage? Why did it take nearly 24 years to end this woman’s incredible nightmare?