Retired prison warden remembers the tumult of Velma Barfield execution

CorrespondentJuly 5, 2013 

After 36 years with the North Carolina Department of Correction, Jennie Lancaster recently found she had a lot of free time on her hands. What’s a newly retired person to do? Clean out her closet, she decided.

While sorting through boxes of pictures, records and knick-knacks, Lancaster stumbled upon a letter – a three-page letter that Velma Barfield had written in June 1984 to her fellow inmates at the Women’s Prison in Raleigh shortly before her execution. Lancaster was the prison warden at the time.

Barfield was the first woman executed in 35 years in the United States – after the U.S. Supreme Court officially reinstated capital punishment in 1976. She was also the first woman to die of lethal injection. She was convicted of poisoning her boyfriend, Stuart Taylor. Barfield confessed to five other murders – including two men who were her husbands.

Barfield wrote the letter while being held in Central Prison’s death watch area. She had been removed from the Women’s Prison because officials thought it could not handle an inmate who might face a real execution date.

The letter starts off with Barfield telling her fellow inmates not to give up hope that her execution will be commuted – but that her execution is a very real possibility.

“I must face the fact that it can happen,” Barfield wrote, with the last three words underlined for emphasis.

She asks for prayers and support. Yet one constant emerges. Throughout the letter, Barfield implores her fellow inmates to behave.

“I am writing to you long-termers to say – these next few weeks is going to be the difficult ones – for me – for all residents especially hard for the staff,” she wrote. “I BELIEVE in each of you.”

“I’m believing you long-termers will be the ones who will be the greatest help to Ms. Lancaster and each one who works with her in keeping peace on the grounds.”

For most, Barfield’s letter wouldn’t come across as extraordinary. It offers little new insight into the serial killer. There isn’t begging for forgiveness. Yet for Jennie Lancaster, this letter epitomizes what she sought to achieve during her career with the Department of Corrections.

Start of a career

His name was Frank King. On the first day of her internship with the Polk Youth Institution in the summer of 1971, Lancaster sat on a bench next to the 16-year-old.

The director of diagnostics at the prison asked Lancaster why she thought King was in prison. In her youthful inexperience, Lancaster believed King was serving time for drugs, LSD or marijuana.

But King was in prison for murder. He had deliberately set a fire that killed three people. It was her seat on the bench next to King, and her summer at the Youth Institution, that would lead Lancaster to a life working in prisons.

She was able to identify with the prisoners because they had something in common – loss. Both of her parents died in a boating accident when she was 5, and she grew up with her grandmother and then a foster family.

“I identified with a sense of loss with these guys,” she remembers. “You come to prison, and so much is taken away from you. Your family is taken away from you. Hell, I was the same age as some of these guys.”

She started her career with the Department of Corrections at the Umstead Correctional Center. Soon she was at the Women’s Prison, and rising to warden. When she retired earlier this year, her official title was the Chief Deputy Secretary of the N.C. Division of Adult Corrections.

Lancaster could talk at length about the experiences she has had while working in prisons.

There was the December night when a bus full of prisoners broke down on the Beltline in Raleigh on the way to look at Christmas lights.

There were candlelight vigils and Christmas Eve services with prisoners at which Lancaster said she felt God’s presence and love.

There was also a rainy Friday night when the Rev. Billy Graham had secretly come to the Women’s Prison. Right before she was executed, Barfield asked Graham to come after her execution to speak to the prison population about accepting her death and to make a commitment to moving forward in their lives in a positive manner.

Before he left, Lancaster asked Graham to meet with one of her more recent prisoners, Bessy – who was quickly dying of AIDS. Lancaster didn’t know at the time, but that woman was the first person Graham had ever met with AIDS. As he would later tell her in a letter, “God touched my life that night.”

Throughout all of her experiences, Lancaster has kept one thing in mind not only for herself but also for her staff: that they are the biggest change agent in the lives of prisoners.

“It’s the people who work in these environments with them,” she said. “It’s not a program; it’s not an education. Those things are helpful, but it is that human interaction, where you are trying to model behavior that many of these people have never seen.”

Setting the tone

Before retiring, Lancaster, a Democrat, was surprised when she was asked to serve on Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s transition team. The transition actually relieved some of her anxiety about retiring because she gained an immense amount of respect for Kieran Shanahan, the current secretary for the Department of Public Safety.

As Shanahan told her during one of their many meetings, “ ‘I know that you are the epitome of what a public servant is, and I’m going to take good care of the family,’ ” Lancaster said.

Shanahan said he doesn’t think Lancaster’s retirement diminishes the impact she will continue to have on the prison system in North Carolina.

“I think overall Jennie really raised the standard of care. She helped to set the tone that prisoners generally, but women in particular, should be treated at all times with dignity and respect,” he said.

Shanahan said Lancaster’s legacy is that she laid the foundation for prisoners to not only pay their debt to society while incarcerated but also to rehabilitate and prepare them for a life after prison, where they can be productive members of society.

Lancaster created many programs and skill-training sessions to prepare prisoners to find jobs when they are released.

Since her retirement, Lancaster’s thoughts have wandered back to the summer of 1984.

While on death row, Velma Barfield became a born-again devout Christian. She regularly corresponded with Ruth Bell Graham, the Rev. Billy Graham’s wife.

News outlets from across the country and the world came to North Carolina to interview Barfield. Diane Sawyer’s first “60 Minutes” interview was with Barfield. The nation watched enraptured as the grandmother from Lumberton fought for her life.

But aside from all that, Lancaster had a prison to run. Barfield was just one of many prisoners.

“There isn’t a manual that tells you how to deal with someone who has an execution date,” Lancaster said. “Even though in my Christian faith, I did not believe in the death penalty, this was about my responsibility for my staff and what happened during that time for us to be a respectful and ethical community.”

Barfield’s letter was so much more for Lancaster. “It was the most remarkable thing to read,” she said. “It reinforced every single thing we did and everything I fundamentally still believe in about how we managed that demanding human challenging environment.”

Lancaster made copies of the letter and sent it to some of her former co-workers at the Women’s Prison who were there in 1984. If there is one thing that letter provides for Lancaster, it’s closure.

“I can’t think of anything I’d change after all these years,” she said.

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