Home Law Prisons and Punishment in Texas: Culture, History and Museological Representation
The Texas Prison Museum and the Modernisation Motif
A number of exhibits within the Texas Prison Museum employ a modernisation motif. Examples include the previously discussed video played to tourists as they enter the museum and the six wall panels (both of which recount the history of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) from the convict leasing system through to the present day). There is also a cabinet about the ‘hardware of the prison system’ which displays restraint belts, handcuffs, ankle manacles, beating paddles and two ball-and-chains. The tools currently used to restrain prisoners do not have the punishment features of the older control apparatuses. For example, the ball-and-chain has been removed from ankle manacles and in some cases chains have been replaced entirely with leather straps.
However, the key exhibits which will be used to discuss this modernisation motif in depth are those associated with the death penalty. According to the director of the Texas Prison Museum, one of the most popular areas of the museum is a constellation of displays that make up the ‘capital punishment exhibit’. While there is no set order in which to view this collection, their spatial organisation and the yellow direction lines painted on the museum floor mean that visitors are nonetheless encouraged to examine the displays in a certain order. This analysis will discuss the exhibits in the order that visitors find them; an order which begins with what Stone (2006) might refer to as a dark tourism product—the electric chair (Fig. 9.1).
As an exhibit the electric chair is placed in a theatrical setting. The lighting is much more subdued than in the rest of the museum, but the chair still casts a long shadow upon the floor. The object is displayed within a replica of the Walls Unit execution chamber, complete with brick walls, and a door and window which serve no function. The chair is protected by both a waist-high glass wall and ropes.
Research Diary: Most become quiet as the electric chair enters their view, almost respectful as they gaze at it and one assumes imagine its destructive force. A sense of unease seems to surround many of the adult visitors, helped by the security measures which add gravitas to a setting that scarcely needs it. They become awkward; their eyes shifting away from what they are here to see; their bodies moving away faster than their morbid curiosity seems to desire. Yet they always glance back; one last glimpse of what might be an uncomfortable reminder of their own mortality.
It is difficult to understand or explain exactly why people react in the way they do to what is essentially an inanimate object, especially considering the comical tone of other museum spaces and products associated with harsher punishments such as execution. It is as though the chair—as an object rather than image—holds captive those whose lives it has taken; death clings to the air around it. In line with Smith (2008, p. 162) it seems to possess ‘an auratic quality ... bestowed by death’. Smith contends that this quality is the result of a symbolic relationship the chair has with the supernatural, the unexplained and the mysterious. He refers to media reports of executions that would describe the inmate ‘twitching’ and ‘jumping’ once the electricity had begun to course through his body, which appears to be possessed with life during the process of death. But as both Smith (2008) and Denver et al. (2008) suggest, maybe the most long-standing illustration of the symbolic relationship between the chair and the mysterious is the unknowable and untouchable nature of
Fig. 9.1 The electric chair: Texas Prison Museum
electricity itself—always present in the execution chamber, but its presence only proven by its effects.
While some may still associate the electric chair with the mysterious, even the supernatural, the chair is symbolic of something else too; a less modern, less civilised era in American penal history (Brandon 1999; Mills 2009; Smith 2008). Within the museum, the glass wall and ropes which protect the chair encourage the audience to see it both as mysterious and antiquated. As Pearce (1994) suggests, by making an object untouchable it retains elements of the unknown while also emphasising its position in the past; not just an object, the museum presents the chair as an artefact.
Yet while the electric chair’s story is no doubt told in past tense that is not to suggest it is a forgotten part of the American penal past. The electric chair continues to feature in cultural products and cultural stories even today. As image and object, the chair has been seen in blockbuster movies (see Sarat 1999b) and described in the pages of bestselling novels (see Owen and Ehrenhaus 2010). It has appeared in an exhibition by Andy Warhol (see Capers 2006) and on stage during one of Madonna’s world tours (see Smith 2008). Even Garland’s (2010) text which purports to speak about the peculiarities associated with modern execution by lethal injection uses the image of the chair rather than the needle. The electric chair is more than just an object or image; it has achieved an iconic status within the culture industry.
The reality of seeing the chair is thus underpinned by a number of other (remembered) stories about the object and its deathly purpose. Not dissimilar to Strange and Kempa’s (2003) description of touring Alcatraz, myths about the object weave together with what the visitor sees and feels in the act of spectatorship (Brown 2009; Smith 2008). Other stories ‘loop and spiral’, circling back upon one another (Ferrell et al. 2008). Films, documentaries and media reports of botched executions all lend their own moral meaning to the object. Yet while many stories have been told about the chair, they often share one commonality. The electric chair is never (re) presented as bringing about a peaceful or serene end; the chair instead shares a symbolic association with a painful and somewhat unpredictable death (Denver et al. 2008).
In addition to the electric chair as an object, there is poster (to the right of the chair) which tells the audience about the history of execution in Texas. The picture upon the poster is black-and-white as opposed to colour, grainy as opposed to defined; it is an image set purposely in the past. These visual communicative gestures give the poster a ‘staged authenticity’ (Walby and Piche 2015, p. 2), presenting the image as a genuine representation of a past reality. Moreover, the text on the poster explains that correctional staff and inmates both refer to the chair as ‘Old Sparky’ and electrocution as ‘riding the thunderbolt’. Inviting the audience to share in the discursive practices of the Texas Correctional Institutions Division serves to intensify the staged authenticity of the exhibit, encouraging tourists to feel part of the prison’s backstage world (Walby and Piche 2015, p. 2). In addition, Smith (2008, p. 160) suggests naming the chair Old Sparky and referring to electrocution as riding the thunderbolt introduces an element of nostalgia into the narrative. The chair may be ill-suited to modernity due to the development of more humane methods of execution, but it is not a forgotten part of the punishment story.
In summary then, the electric chair and accompanying poster place the story of execution by electrocution in the past. The aesthetics of the chair and the space around it make it an artefact; something of a bygone era. However, that is not to suggest that the method is portrayed as barbaric. Whilst visitors might interpret it as such, the museum does nothing overtly to make such a suggestion. Yet the chair is the beginning of a chronological story told by the Texas Prison Museum about execution.
There is another poster to the left of the chair entitled ‘Anatomy of an Execution’ which is about death by lethal injection. In the centre of the poster is a clock face, surrounding a picture of an executed inmate, Willie Pondexter. Around the edges of the clock are images relating to the various tasks undertaken before, during and after an execution. They are accompanied by textual descriptions that explain what each task involves and who is responsible for overseeing it. In contrast to the nostalgic language and tone of the electric chair’s story, the use of the word ‘anatomy’ associates lethal injection with the scientific and the medical. Inviting the viewer to recall images of frogs in textbooks or medical line drawings of the human body, the word no doubt has nuanced connotations of death, but not the painful, gruesome death associated with electrocution.
While the death penalty continues to generate emotionally charged debate in the political, social and cultural spheres, the use of the word anatomy (and the image of the clock face) attempts to diffuse that emotionality by depicting lethal injection as a routine, scientifically sanitised and perfectly timed series of events. Moreover, this ‘anatomy poster’ is positioned in close proximity to the chair, rather than the needles (which are discussed shortly). This positioning encourages the audience to interpret the punishment story in terms of movement from past to present; this is a story about refinement, modernisation and ultimately progress.
From the chair-as-object and these two posters about death by electrocution and lethal injection, we can already begin to see a narrative of retribution (as opposed to vengeance or closure) emerging. Execution is depicted without any reference to the victim or the victim’s family and we receive no sense that the state desires excessive cruelty—quite the reverse. The state has modernised the method of execution in order to reduce cruelty or excess; the current method of execution becomes synonymous with a more civilised way of taking life. Similarly, these aspects of the capital punishment exhibit do not explicitly employ the narrative of fear to justify execution. Without a specific crime we have no offender, and as such no physical form at which to direct our fear. While other cultural stories told about the prison and execution usually feature a criminal alongside their victim, the museum story—thus far—has not included these character constructions.
That said, the lack of an offender and by extension the lack of a victim is actually somewhat in keeping when we remember that this is a museum directed by the ex-warden of the Walls Unit. As Garland (2010) suggests, in recent times official statements made by Public Information Officers about executions usually attempt to ‘de-sensationalise’ the event; they limit the level of emotionality within their scripts. Entitling the poster about lethal injection Anatomy of an Execution’ (rather than ‘Riding the Thunderbolt’ or similar) can be understood as achieving that same goal. This effort to de-sensationalise is also apparent when we consider the roles of the correctional officers qualified to be involved in an execution by lethal injection. Often referred to as ‘the tie-down team’ or ‘the death-work team’ (Johnson 2005), these officers are trained to be as precise as humanly possible in order to reduce the likelihood of a ‘spectacle’. The aim is to make modern execution a ‘non-event’ (Zimring and Hawkins 1989, p. 120). The job of the death-work team, securing the inmate’s body to the gurney using leather straps, is detailed in the museum’s poster about lethal injection. Portrayed as routine and precise, the poster’s narrative reflects the official image. Rather than plagued by unpredictability, lethal injection is a reliable and consistent method of extinguishing life. Moreover, the positioning of the needles in the museum likewise echoes this sentiment. No mock execution chamber, no gurney, the needles are instead placed in the bottom of a cabinet which is actually dedicated to other things. Unlike the chair-as-object, the needles are a non-event within the museum.
The cabinet containing the needles is (at first somewhat confusingly) also the cabinet which displays paraphernalia relating to two controversial death row inmates, Karla Faye Tucker and Gary Graham, both of whom were executed. The viewer is not explicitly told why the executions caused controversy—rather this is implied by the abolitionist tone of the items within the cabinet. The part of the display case dedicated to the Karla Faye Tucker includes a ‘stop executions’ banner made by the Texas Coalition against the Death Penalty, and a poster used in a protest march made by an anti-death penalty group in Copenhagen. The text under her photograph states that ‘Tucker was executed in 1998 for murdering two people with a pickaxe’. The second story offered within this cabinet is that of Gary Graham, pictured in a mugshot. The objects within this side of the case—as also identified by Lichtenstein (2004)—include a noose and a burnt American flag. The text beneath Graham’s picture states that he was
sentenced to die by lethal injection for robbing and murdering a man ... Graham had also been charged in ten separate robberies and suspected in two shootings, ten car thefts, eight more shootings, and the rape of 57-year- old woman.
Lying in the bottom of the cabinet, on a raised back plinth, are three syringes and an intravenous fluid bag. Each syringe is numbered and accompanied by a short description which details the name of the drug and the effect it has on the body. The first is said to ‘sedate the inmate’, the second ‘collapses the inmate’s diaphragm and lungs’, and the third ‘causes the inmate’s heart to stop’. The museum’s story of modern execution thus becomes entwined with the museum’s (brief) story about abolitionists and abolitionism.
This display case is actually very interesting from a narrative perspective. Firstly, we—the audience—are not told why the cases of Karla Faye Tucker or Gary Graham were controversial. Much like the ‘death in the line of duty’ cabinets, their story is not very well contextualised. Secondly, the objects on display are symbolically charged; they tell a specific story about abolitionists. The burnt American flag offers the suggestion that abolitionists (whatever their nationality) are unpatriotic and the noose seems to imply that abolitionists associate the modern death penalty either with legal hangings or illegal lynchings. However, no specific representation of an abolitionist argument is provided; we are given no reason to oppose the execution of Graham or Tucker, or to question the use of the death penalty more generally. Somewhat confusingly, we are actually offered a retributive narrative which could be interpreted as advocating the Tucker and Graham executions. The text accompanying the photographs of both offenders encourages the (pro-death penalty) viewer to justify their executions based on the crimes they committed. Yet the pro-death penalty tourist is not invited to support Tucker and Graham’s execution because of any highly emotional account of suffering, nor do we see any demands for closure from the victims’ families. Instead it is the gravity of the crimes that the offenders committed which provides the backdrop for the narrative; execution is depicted using the language of retribution and proportionality.
The final two installations within the Texas Prison Museum’s capital punishment exhibition are an audio recording and a photographic display. They are interesting because they represent a real tension within what has thus far been a (somewhat unemotional) narrative about both the modernisation of execution and execution as retribution. The audio exhibit encourages the visitor to question Texan commitment to the death penalty.
The audio track can be heard at a small display entitled ‘Witness to an Execution’. It is a mixture of music and people speaking about their experiences of being in the room during an execution. A textual description guide explains that the people speaking are members of the tie-down team, spiritual advisors, Associated Press personnel and ex-warden Jim
Willet. It is clear from listening that the correctional officers trained in execution do not take pleasure in their task and have no desire for excessive cruelty. Yet the voices tell us something else too. In one section each interviewee states how many executions they have witnessed with one person’s response directly followed by the next. Purposefully repetitive, this section seems to encourage the listener to consider (if not outright question) the Texan commitment to harsh punishment.
Audio Transcript [Music fades to reveal voices of different people].
‘My name is Jim Brazzil. I am a chaplain with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Part of my responsibility is being in the death chamber at the time of execution. I have been with 114 people at the time of their execution.’
‘My name is Kenneth Dean. I’m the Major at the Huntsville Unit. I’ve participated in and witnessed approximately 120 executions.’
‘ I’m Michael Graczyk and I’m the correspondent in charge of the Houston bureau of the Associated Press. I’ve witnessed approximately 170 executions.’
‘I have been a participant in thirty-one executions.’
‘I witnessed fifty-two executions.’
‘Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 115 executions.’ ‘Approximately 105, 110 executions.’
‘Thirty-six or thirty-seven executions.’
‘I’ve witnessed 162 executions by lethal injection in the state of Texas.’ ‘Bam, bam, bam, do three a year that’s one thing. Do 35 a year—that’s a lot.’
The most poignant audio section comes later when the witnesses describe what it is like to be in the execution chamber at the moment of death. According to Sarat (1999b) the execution scene in death penalty movies often places the audience as a ‘voyeur to someone else’s voyeurism’ and listening to this audio track places the tourist in a similar position. Yet while death penalty movies tend to involve the victim or crime (swapping between an image of the gurney and an image of the murder scene) the museum’s audio does not. Rather, those interviewed turn their attention to the offender and the offender’s family. Conversely, it is these people who are presented as the unlikely ‘victims’.
‘ What will I say when I see God? I wrestle with myself about the fact that it’s easier now and was I right to make part of my income from watching people die?’
‘I had a mother collapse right in front of me; we were standing virtually shoulder to shoulder. I’ve seen them fall into the floor, totally lose control. You’ll never hear another sound like a mother wailing whenever she’s watching her son be executed. Yet, how do you tell a mother that she can’t be there in the last moments of her son’s life?’
‘Some of them are very calm, some of them are upset, some of them cry ... usually in about 20 seconds, he’s completely strapped in ... After all the straps are done they look you in the eye and they tell you thank you for everything you’ve done. It’s kind of a weird thing ... A lot of inmates apologise ... I know that at times they know when it’s happening to them. One in particular I can remember, he said “I can taste it”.’
Unlike Brown’s (2009‘ p. 144) conclusions about other penal tourist sites, this exhibit in the Texas Prison Museum does not ‘look away’ from the act of punishing; the ‘distance’ between the visitor and the condemned is never smaller than it is when listening to this audio recording. Rather than presenting a ‘vague unease’ about the act of punishing (Brown 2009), the disquiet of the execution team is clear and explicit. The shift of focus— onto the offender and his family (as victims)—along with the morbid tone might suggest that the audio (in isolation) could be interpreted as being critical of the Texan commitment to harsh punishment. But it is not heard in isolation; it is instead part of the modernisation motif. It is one aspect of a bigger picture in which the execution is presented as serene, sterilised, medicalised and civilised in comparison to its antiquated counterpart. And indeed, certain elements of the audio reference this storied construction of the lethal injection as bringing about a more peaceful death.
‘Then we’ll say its time, and so they will unlock the cell, and he’s not handcuffed or chained, and he and I will walk into the chamber.’
‘One man wanted to sing Silent Night, he made his final statement and then after the warden gave the signal he started singing Silent Night and he got to the part “round yon virgin mother and child” and just as he got “child” out—was the last word.’
‘The people inside, watching, they are invariably quiet.’
‘It’s very quiet, it’s extremely quiet. You can hear every breath everyone takes around you.’
So the audio in its entirety is actually quite complex in comparison to the rest of the death penalty exhibit. On the one hand it appears somewhat critical of the Texan commitment to execution (you ‘Do 35 a year—that’s a lot’) and positions the inmate or the inmate’s family as victims (‘You’ll never hear another sound like a mother wailing’). Yet on the other hand, it portrays the execution as a quiet event (‘You can hear every breath’) and suggests that the inmate’s death is as civilised as the taking of life can be (‘he’s not handcuffed or chained’). Overall, the audio actually serves to reinforce the modernisation motif and is a further expression of a retributive (as opposed to vengeful) narrative. The execution team take no pleasure in punishing and the state has no desire for excessive cruelty. Using Nozick’s (1981) distinction, this Texan story of punishment displaces the victim or any victimhood narrative and in turn makes the narrative one of retribution rather than vengeance. In short, while the audio does represent a tension, it is not one which undermines either the modernisation motif or the retributive narrative.
However, the photographic display mentioned earlier does represent a real tension to this otherwise retributive narrative; here we find a clear expression of the vengeance and closure narratives. The exhibit, ‘Last Statement’, is on loan to the museum from Barbara Sloan, a local photographer. It comprises sixteen photographs in two rows of eight. One side contains pictures and statements of the family members of murder victims. The other side is made up of images and statements of family members of executed inmates. At one end of the rows of photographs is a statement from Sloan in which she describes the families of those who have been executed as the ‘forgotten victims of crime’. She also explains why she felt the need to undertake the project: ‘I started thinking about the families execution leaves behind ... It really is a moving conversation to speak with a parent, any parent, who has lost a child.’ (Fig. 9.2)
Both sets of families (of the victim and of the executed) are constructed as victims within the artist’s statement. This sense of symmetry is also reflected both in the composition of the exhibit (the photographs are
Fig. 9.2 Photographic Exhibit: Texas Prison Museum
all framed the same way and they stand back to back) and in the similarity of sentiment within the written statements (both sets of families speak about their suffering). This symmetry compels the viewer to at least consider the possibility that we should afford the executed man’s family victim status; they too have suffered a loss. One mother, whose son was murdered, makes this quite clear in her own statement:
Yolanda’s pain was the same as mine. A son is a son. It doesn’t matter whether you lose them as a victim or a criminal. The pain is the same.
Christie (1996) has discussed the construction of victimhood in news reporting, arguing that the legitimacy of claims for victimhood recognition will differ significantly depending on whether the victim is perceived as ‘ideal’ or not. Ideal victims tend to be viewed as entirely innocent and in no way deserving of their victimisation, as opposed to non-ideal victim groups such as sex workers who are raped, drunks who are mugged or someone with a criminal record. The photographic exhibit can thus be interpreted as both a story about ideal victims (the murder victim’s family) and non-ideal victims (the executed man’s family). As Christie (1996) might predict, the ways in which people react to the display and the claims of victimhood do indeed vary dramatically:
Research Diary: Some visitors appeared moved by the suffering, others were angry that victimhood recognition had been awarded at all. Of all the displays, this one seemed to generate the most debate from the museum visitors; some people seemed to see a friction between the two ‘types’ of victim. I heard one visitor describe it as ‘a disgusting attempt [by the executed men’s families] to get sympathy’.
The display might be seen by tourists as somehow abolitionist in tone, as an attempt to make them question the death penalty from a moral perspective because execution makes albeit non-ideal victims of innocent people (the executed man’s family). Yet the display also speaks in a language understood by death penalty advocates; ideal victims express their continued suffering. For example, Mike Miller (son of murder victim Noel Miller) states, ‘My sister and I were robbed of the opportunity to know our dad and have him be part of our lives.’
However, while this museum installation might be interpreted as prodeath penalty due to the ideal victims’ statements of suffering, there are other suggestions (in addition to the artist’s statement and the symmetry of grief) that this is—more accurately—an anti-death penalty exhibit. As Berns (2011) found when he analysed anti-death penalty cultural products, closure is portrayed as somewhat elusive. Two statements, made by the parents of James C. Boswell (a murdered police officer) exemplify this. While Sonny (James’s father) says of the perpetrator ‘the man is dead. To me that is some closure,’ Martha (James’s mother) says ‘the legal part is over. But you never get closure.’
Moreover, one statement within this exhibit (made by Darryl Bell— the cousin of Derrick Leon Jackson, executed in 2010) raises a number of questions about the biases within a ‘broken system’ including ineffective council. Rather than ‘bracketing structural questions of legitimacy’—as Sarat (1999b) found in death penalty movies—these statements openly invite the visitor to question the legitimacy of the death penalty. Moreover, unlike many other cultural products, both non-ideal and ideal victims are telling this anti-execution story within the museum narrative. Claudia Beseda-Burns (daughter of murder victim Elizabeth Beseda) says, ‘I don’t believe in capital punishment. I’ve never felt anyone had the right to take another person’s life.’
So while this exhibit does employ a narrative of both vengeance and closure within some ideal victims’ statements, in its entirety the display is not really pro-execution. Had the Texas Prison Museum (or more accurately the photographer) chosen only to include statements and images of the murder victims’ families then this exhibit would have been interpreted very differently. As a story it would have presented a much more compelling argument to support harsh punishment based on a vengeance and/or closure narrative. Yet choosing to allow the executed man’s family space to grieve alongside the murder victim’s family constructs symmetry between suffering, and the legitimacy of supporting an execution based solely on narratives of closure or vengeance is subsequently compromised.
Moreover, as discussed in Chap. 5, when the family member of a murder victim speaks publicly about the crime they can legitimately imply they might take ‘pleasure’ in that punishment and they have the authority to make pleas for ‘excess’ (Garland 2010). Victimhood status gives permission to employ emotional scripts and in turn to demand that the punishment fulfils a desire for vengeance. Conversely, state discourse tends to forbid these two expressions; the agent of the state is depicted as taking no pleasure or satisfaction from the act of punishing and they will have no desire for excessive cruelty. It is worth noting then, that this museum display is made up entirely of direct quotations from the family members of homicide victims. There is no suggestion anywhere in the exhibit that the state of Texas (or more specifically employees of the TDCJ) takes pleasure in punishment or seeks excess.
So while narratives of closure and vengeance are present in the Texas Prison Museum, and they do illustrate a tension within the otherwise retributive story, their presence alone does not mean that the constellation of execution exhibits presents ‘punishment as personalised’. Indeed the more pervasive narrative found within the collection of capital punishment exhibits is one of retribution. Furthermore, according to a member of staff at the Texas Prison Museum this photographic display is one of the only exhibits which is temporary and will be removed when the artist decides ‘she wants it back’. This is interesting because it helps explain why the tension exists; Jim Willet, the museum curator, did not commission the exhibit. When asked about how it came to be displayed in the museum he said,
I was approached by the artist, and when I saw it I just wanted it in the museum. I think it’s a really interesting piece and it has its own story to tell. I’m not sure how long we’ll have it here, but I’m happy to keep it as long as we can. The death penalty is a complex and controversial issue so we think it’s good to show it from all perspectives.
So the photographic exhibit and the tension it creates may be the result of someone else telling their story of execution, and of course if the artist does remove the display from the museum, any closure and/or vengeance narrative will be removed with it. There will be no stories in which punishment can be interpreted as personal. When this occurs what will be left is a narrative of retribution. This is somewhat surprising considering the stories told about Texas by cultural outsiders. While we might have expected to find victimhood scripts being deployed in sensationalised stories about execution, instead what we find is a rational and somewhat unemotional story about retributive punishment.
In summary, the variety of exhibits which make up the ‘capital punishment display’ put forward a specific narrative framework within which to interpret why Texas punishes the way it does. By juxtaposing the past and the present, the old against the new, modern punishment becomes synonymous with civilised punishment. Rather than seeing a representation of a vengeful state, this modernisation motif actually serves to construct the image of a compassionate state; one that seeks to improve and refine the methods by which it punishes. Within the Texas Prison Museum—as a whole—the retribution narrative is both more pervasive and persuasive as a collective story of why Texas supports execution.
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