First thing I noticed while watching Soft White Underbelly’s profile of Charlie Jones, a retired prison warden and executioner, was my own impulse to psychoanalyze, to read into his silences, the arms folded tight over the belly.
Because he does seem to choose his words carefully at first, probably skeptical of where Laita might take the interview (easy to imagine that Jones has been subject to lots of outta-nowhere hostility in his life)—and we can see the proof of that guardedness at the end of the video, when he finally lets it down, telling Laita that one of his most critical rules for himself while working as an executioner was that he “did not let anybody guilt me about what I had to do.”
It’s a telling remark and Laita earns it through the interview, beginning with fact-based questions about Jones’s career, allowing Jones breathing room to answer at length, establishing a comfortable, inquisitive, permissive vibe.
When he finally asks Jones what he feels about the job, Jones lights up a bit.
“That’s an interesting question.”
You can see the layers peeling back as the interview proceeds.
Jones looks and sounds nonplussed, centered, almost serene. But there are small things to suggest he isn’t totally at peace with the seventeen or eighteen people he’s executed in the electric chair (Laita asks if the execution is done with the flip of a switch; Jones corrects him, with the most languid pronunciation, “Push of a button,” and then simulates with a slowmoving finger).
The most telling sign of Jones’s unease is that when Laita asks him which factors create a criminal, whether it’s mental illness or environment or something personal, Jones smiles in a weary way and says, “If I knew that I could probably rest easy for the rest of my days,” which would suggest that, at present, he doesn’t rest easily. (Maybe what Jones means to say is that he’d find some way of getting rich off of that knowledge, and “rest easy” in financial splendor, but I don’t think that’s what he means.)
The other thing is that, after talking at length about the ins and outs of his profession, after revealing some of its starkness, Jones reveals what sounds like the calculus of his conscience.
He talks about how, when he was on the job, he just had to make sure that he and his staff treated the prisoner properly on his or her way to the chair. He emphasizes that they were all brought here, to the electric chair, by a long legal process and that if there was any mistake made in this prisoner’s sentencing, it isn’t Jones’s fault.
And toward the end he volunteers, somewhat urgently, that ex-cons would soemtiems rush up to him on the street, shake his hand, and thank him for how he kept them out of trouble when they were inmates. The way he leaps to this while exploring the grittier elements of his work and his feelings that aren’t normally explored (“Tell you the truth, I seldom think about it”) suggests, at leas to me, that Jones might still have unresolved issues about his work.
Finally, at the end, Laita thanks Jones for his time and tells him that the things he said were “very interesting”—whereupon James lights up with the most shy and boyish smile.
He’s a humble man. I’d venture he’s not accustomed to being asked about his thoughts and feelings.
I’d venture he’s got a lot of them bottled up.