Home Law Prisons and Punishment in Texas: Culture, History and Museological Representation
After checking into my motel I took a walk to Huntsville city centre. Much like other small Texan cities Huntsville has a well-kept Courthouse, a cafe or two, a Greyhound stop and a few motels. But unlike anywhere else in Texas, Huntsville is also home to the Texas State Penitentiary Huntsville Unit and the execution chamber. Known to locals as the Walls, the prison has become part of the city’s cultural architecture. Billboards line the streets of Huntsville and its surrounding areas, advertising employment in the prison as a worthwhile career that pays well and gives good holidays. The roads are peppered with Texas Department of Correction vehicles, transporting their cargo to and from the Walls. Shops display signs telling newly released prisoners that checks can be cashed within.
Research Diary: Sat in a shady spot in the town square, outside the Texas Cafe waiting for my grilled cheese sandwich to arrive. To my left, a row of beautifully quaint antiques shops. Having already spent the morning wandering them I can safely say that ‘Southern hospitality’ is no myth. The people inside are as welcoming as the shop fronts, adorned with beautiful hanging baskets and well-worn rocking chairs. To my right, however, is a very different vista. The courthouse lawn is being tended by six inmates. Whilst they are free to move around unconstrained, the sight is somehow reminiscent of chain gang photographs. All are young black men, wearing prison attire and they are watched intently by two white prison guards. While the guards have found a shady spot the inmates must surely be sweating profusely in the near unbearable Texan heat.
The Walls Unit is a short walk from the main square and Courthouse building. The entrance to the Walls, situated on 12th Street, seems to blend into its surroundings. It is a simple, but elegant red brick building with a clock on the front and high walls that stretch up into the sky. But the walls stretch outwards too, for at least three city blocks. With no doors or windows it becomes easy to see how the Walls got its nickname. At night it is lit from below and were it not for the ominous barbed wire, the entrance could be mistaken for a motel. Tourists are not allowed to enter the Walls but they are able to see and hear the story of the Walls— and the Texas Correctional Institutions Division—in the Texas Prison Museum which is a 10-minute drive away.
The Texas Prison Museum is located just off Interstate 45, which runs between Dallas and Houston. On the approach to the museum down a long gravel path, there is a tall, needle-like monument (Fig. 3.3). The monument is framed either side by the Texan and US flags, flying at the same height. The inscription at the base tells us that the monument ‘honors the men and women who valiantly served the state of Texas in the correctional system as well as those serving now and in the future’. Within the grounds around the monument there are trees planted in commemoration of officers who have died in the line of duty.
On entering the museum, tickets are on sale at the gift ship. There are usually one or two members of staff around the till area who are either talking to each other or with patrons. Sometimes Jim Willet (museum
Fig. 3.3 Texas Prison Museum Monument
director and ex-warden of the Walls Unit) can also be found there, drinking a coffee and offering to sign copies of his autobiography—a great read called Warden—which is sold in the museum gift shop. I had read the book before visiting the museum, so meeting Jim and talking about his experiences as warden was a wonderful way to pass an hour or so. When I first arrived, there were also a few volunteers restocking the gift shop and they too had worked in the Walls before retiring and joining the museum staff. While we chatted a delivery of prisoner-made items arrived, leather goods mainly, and the volunteers explained that these types of items tended to sell really well.
It was clear that the museum acted as a kind of social meeting point for prison staff past and present, somewhere for people to drop in for a coffee if they happen to be passing. Much like the Sheriff in Eastland, preserving Huntsville’s penal past seemed like more than just a hobby; the museum had become part of the social dynamic created by shared experiences of working in the prison. The Museum website reflected this, offering short biographies of the staff: ‘Charlie Combs and Jim Willett are retired prison employees with 60 years of prison experience ... Dorothy had 36 years’ service ... Betty W. had 15 years with the prison system ... Carolyn was there seven years ... Jerry had 23 years’, and the list goes on. After spending a few hours in the museum on different days it is clear that the building is more than just a tourist site. A meeting place for correctional officers past and present, it is a space to share stories and stay in touch with the rhymes and rhythms of the prison.
The Museum itself is all on one floor and a simple rectangle; it is not unlike a small aeroplane hangar. The floor is concrete, the walls (where visible) are white or red brick and the ceiling is black. There are no windows other than at the entrance; light instead is provided by a series of fluorescent strip lights and the cabinets, many of which are illuminated from within. Museum admission is $4 for adults and $2 for children. When paying to enter the museum, guests are also told how to get to the Joe Byrd Cemetery, so after touring the museum I took a cab to see it for myself. The cemetery is on the outskirts of Huntsville and as I’d learnt from a poster in the museum, it is where the unclaimed bodies of those who have been executed and those who have died whilst serving their prison sentence are laid to rest (Fig. 3.4). I’d spoken to Jim Willet about the cemetery too, and he told me that
We’ve buried just over 2,000 [inmates] in the Joe Byrd at last count. It used to be more cases when no-one claimed the body. You know, either the family disowned them or they didn’t have no family. More recent though, is the cases when the family just can’t afford the burial and funeral costs. We worked out it’s about twenty-five percent of deceased inmates get buried there. It’s a simple funeral but it’s respectful. It costs over nineteen hundred dollars a time.
My cab ride from the Prison Museum to the Joe Byrd Cemetery had been both enjoyable and informative. My driver’s name was Carl, and we became quite good friends while I was in Huntsville. There was only one taxi company and on most of my journeys it was Carl who arrived to take
Fig. 3.4 Joe Byrd Cemetery
me to my destination. As usual, we chatted all the way there. He told me he knew all about the prison system and a little about the cemetery too. This was because Don, Carl’s brother, is a correctional officer. Carl had attended an inmate’s funeral with his brother a couple of months previously. He explained they went because Don ‘knew the guy a bit’:
Don said he [the inmate] was alright, no hassle you know? So he wanted to pay his respects ... Was a real nice service. The guy’s mum was there so we talked with her for a bit. Made sure she got home OK. He [her son] might not have turned out quite like she would’ve liked, but it was still her son you know? No mother should have to go through that, burying a kid must be heart-breaking.
Carl also told me that the 22-acre site is often referred to as Peckerwood Hill by both locals and inmates. I asked him why it had such a strange nickname: ‘Peckerwood? Oh, it means someone that’s poor you see— and hasn’t had no schooling to speak of.’ ‘So that’s who ends up here?’ I replied. ‘Yes ma’am, the inmates who can’t afford a funeral, and the ones who haven’t got no-one to come collect them.’ I paid Carl the taxi fare and told him I’d be ready for collection in an hour or two—whatever suited him. Travel plans were all very relaxed in Huntsville. Carl had my mobile number and tended to call me when he was ready rather than the other way around.
Research Diary: This place is eerily similar to a field of fallen war heroes ... some of the stones have names, many I see just numbers. There are approximately 2,000 graves here and minimal evidence of personal tending or love. None of the knee-height tombstones are crowded with teddy bears, flowers, notes or trinkets. There are fresh flowers next to a few, dead flowers next to some but most have nothing. I see an elderly woman kneeling beside a grave and remember Carl’s story.
After visiting the Texas Prison Museum and the cemetery a few more times, I said my goodbyes to the museum staff and Carl the taxi-driver. Jim Willett had kindly given me his card so I could get in touch if I needed any further information. Like Wayne in Eastland he was incredibly knowledgeable about the Texas Correctional Institutions Division, and not just because of his professional experience. Jim had read many of the academic texts cited in this book and I enjoyed debating with him about them. Before I knew it though, I was back on a Greyhound and this time I was heading for Houston.
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