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Former Utah state prison Warden talks about death row and change

Utah state prison spokesman Ken Shulsen announces the execution of Gary Gilmore on January 17, 1977. Photo credit: KSL TV archive

SALT LAKE CITY – Former Utah state prison Warden Ken Shulsen’s first shift as a corrections officer was a memorable one.

“I’ll never forget my first experience, my first official act as a corrections officer, was to walk in front of a cell, verify the individual was in the cell,” he said during Episode 12 of Talking Cold, the companion podcast to The Cold Podcast Season 2: Justice for Joyce. “One of the death row inmates threw a cup of urine down the front of me. And I remember saying something like, ‘That’s not very nice.’ And I went to the next cell, and that guy did the same thing.”

He said he looked down the row of cells and saw there were three more he had to verify.

“I said, ‘Now guys, have I been baptized enough, or is this going to go on all night?” said Shulsen, who spent 23 years working for corrections, including several years as Warden. “And all three of those guys said, ‘No, no problems.’ So I went by and counted them.”

After he finished the count, he went around the corner, out of view of the inmates, and took his clothes off to wash them in the sink.

“I was christened early in the system,” said Shulsen, who was 25 at the time.

Shulsen, who was warden for several years in the mid-80s, has worked in almost every area of the prison from education to athletics, as well as in corrections administration. He discussed his career on the podcast, including a small riot in which he was briefly taken hostage. Shulsen describes what happened in the riot in episode 12 of Talking Cold

Shulsen helped oversee the execution of three inmates on Utah’s death row, including Gary Gilmore, who was the first person executed in the U.S. after a U.S. Supreme Court decision led to a nearly 10 year moratorium on executions. Shulsen’s job was to deal with the press, and he was the one who informed the world that Gilmore had been shot to death in the 1977 execution. Shulsen also said they learned lessons about what to avoid during executions from the experience with Gilmore, including making sure the inmates were isolated from family and friends prior to the death date. 

Shulsen was part of the effort to come up with laws that governed the death penalty in Utah, as it was mostly up to corrections, specifically the warden, before reforms in the 1980s. And while he believes the best way to help people change their lives is to find ways to keep them out of prison, he said he witnessed a lot of positive change in his two decades at the prison.

“I’ve seen a lot of lives change,” he said. “I got a letter one time from a guy in Southern California, and I didn’t even remember him, have no idea who he was. He thanked me for some things I did for him to help him get through prison. And I had no idea who he was. He was president of some company down there. I mean, he was kind of a big shot. … I was in the Salt Lake temple a number of years after I retired, and I sat down and a gentleman sat down next to me. I … kind of glanced and I could see tattoos running out from under his sleeves and this voice says, ‘How are you Warden?’ And I looked in it was an ex motorcycle guy, who was in prison for murder. It was one of our firefighters. ….I’ve seen a lot of lives change.”

Listen to Ken Shulsen’s full interview in Talking Cold.