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Shadow Figures: A Portrait of Life on Texas Death Row

Following the approval of a Texas law that speeds up the appeals process for condemned inmates, the state carried out 24 executions in the first half of 1997, breaking its own record of 20 in the entire year of 1935. When this article originally appeared on the MoJo Wire that year, Robert Wallace West was the next man slated for lethal injection. He was executed the day this article ran. What follows is an unprecedented look into life on the Row.

| Tue Jul. 29, 1997 2:00 AM EDT

I first saw the blocks of cells called Death Row in Texas in December 1993, just after my partner, Ken Light, and I received permission to photograph and interview the men living there.

I wanted to produce a straightforward, unsentimental view of a place that has been shrouded in mystery, to offer the human face of these men, the pre-dead. We were interested not in individual cases but in creating a portrait of life on the Row.

We chose Texas not only because of the access granted, but because of its stature among death rows nationally. There is unabashed public support for the death penalty in Texas. Of the 3,000 individuals, mostly men, waiting to be executed in this country, typically 400 or so of them live on Death Row in Texas. The gallery of the condemned here has grown from a single row of cells holding 24 men at the old prison in downtown Huntsville in 1977 to six wings of cells (each wing has three levels or "tiers") at Ellis, the maximum security prison several miles outside of town.

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Texas may be on the cutting edge of a national trend supporting capital punishment. Executions offer the allure of simplicity and completion, or "closure," as it is often described by its advocates. In execution there appears to be the hope of an answer to senseless murders, even if it is man-by-man justice. But if as a democratic society we want the state to carry out the ultimate punishment -- for whatever reasons, from deterrence to unapologetic vengeance -- then it is incumbent upon each of us to examine clearly and honestly what we have created.

The average length of time between conviction and execution in Texas is now more than nine years; it's not uncommon for an inmate to live on the Row for a decade or more. (This will change eventually, since recently passed state and federal laws governing post-conviction habeas corpus appeals are designed to reduce the time from final conviction to execution.)

From the town square in Huntsville, signs direct you to several "units" in the surrounding area (in corrections jargon, prisons are units that are managed by the system.) This small Baptist town in east Texas is the administrative heart of the largest and most prosperous prison system in the free world -- it's a company town where the company happens to be the prison bureaucracy. Some days you can still see prisoners in their white suits cleaning and tending to public properties around town. Ex-cons marry prison guards, guards meet and fall in love with one another, and some families have generations of sons and daughters working in the system.

The maximum security prisons known as the Ellis and Estelle units are more than 20 miles northeast of town, down long stretches of two-lane farm-to-market roads. Estelle is the first stop for newly condemned prisoners. The men under death sentence then go to Ellis for processing. Most of them will never leave Ellis again until their scheduled execution, when they take the van ride downtown to the death chamber at "the Walls," the system's oldest prison.

The majority live out their time in individual cells, 5 feet by 9 feet, equipped with a 6-foot bunk, a steel sink, and a toilet. There's no air conditioning. There is no exercise equipment on the Row. The men clean their own cells. They are issued clean pants and a shirt every three days, and underwear, socks, and a towel every day. Showers, a 10-minute daily ritual, are taken alone.

Those who choose to can work a regular four-hour shift at the garment factory or at a handful of other jobs; some are barbers or Death Row porters, who help serve food to men in lockdown. They are moved to the H wings, where most of them live in double cells, 10 feet by 9 feet, with another man. When a prisoner's execution date arrives, however, he has to leave the work program and move to a higher security Administrative Segregation wing until five days after his stay of execution, if he has received such a stay.

Many men talked about their initial fears in facing Death Row. Once they were convicted and sentenced to die, most believed they would be executed right away. Almost no one anticipates the months or years of waiting, or how living on the Row will change them.

Prisoners spend their time watching TV, reading, writing, listening to the radio, sleeping, and constantly talking. The noise is nonstop -- running conversations, gossip, storytelling, jokes and jive, yells at one another or at shows playing on the TV sets. Guys who aren't restricted "piddle," or make crafts that they sell to pay for stamps, extra food from the commissary, and other items.

The garment factory is the crown jewel of Texas's Death Row. It started as an experiment in 1981 and remains the only prison program in the nation where the entire work force is under a death sentence. Work Capable prisoners are given certain measures of autonomy. The work program is a useful management tool, offering incentives for good behavior that don't otherwise exist for the condemned. The program is controversial among the prisoners, however, and many see it as divisive. Through the years, the privileges given to those who work have helped to create a kind of class system on the Row.

Members of the public who even think about these men generally remember them as they were portrayed when they were caught, or at trial. The death sentence in essence pronounces these men incapable of change, irredeemable, and unfit to live. Once convicted, they become shadow figures, their images frozen in a media frame. But no one is truly suspended in time.

Many of the condemned change dramatically while they are there, some for the better, some for the worse. Other than family and friends of these men, the one group intensely aware of how they change on the Row is family members of their victims. This is another way in which the survivors' lives become unintentionally yet inextricably bound with the condemned, as the survivors track the months and years "their" inmates spend on the Row.

A number of the condemned learn more about themselves while waiting to die than they did in all the years they were free. As one prisoner said, "All we have to talk about is our past," and many spend countless hours trying to make sense of what brought them to Death Row.

Because the conviction and appeals processes appear to be random and arbitrary, and because the men on the Row typically don't have solid information about their cases, explanations infused with superstition about the order of executions have evolved.

Many men believe the Death Row number assigned each prisoner indicates execution order -- the lower the number, the more likely you are to get killed. A variation on this is that when someone with a number near yours gets a date, you soon will, too. The truth is that, since men with low numbers have been there the longest, some anecdotal evidence supports this theory. But judges don't set execution dates by prison numbers. There are also stories of guards having parties before or during executions, and of body parts being sold by the system to medical researchers after executions.

The stories and beliefs are inadvertently supported by the ritualistic way in which the system carries out executions. Every step leading to the final injection is followed, even when the authorities know a court stay is about to be issued -- or has been issued -- to halt the execution.

Thirty-six hours before the appointed time, the man is moved with a few personal effects, like toiletries and writing paper, to the Death Watch cell for observation. He's told to write his will.

The "execution summary" is filled out by the warden at Ellis and then passed along to the warden at the Walls prison, where the death chamber is located.

The prisoner is asked what he wants for a final meal, what color outfit he wishes to wear, and who should be on a final visiting list. An inventory of his property is taken, and he is asked to whom it, as well as any money in his prison account, should be distributed. He is also asked if he wishes to donate his body to the prison medical facility in Galveston or if next of kin will claim the body. The poorest, and the men without family, are buried in the Joe Byrd cemetery, their graves marked only by a simple white cross inscribed with their prison number.

Twenty-four hours before the scheduled execution, the condemned man is taken in shackles to the Walls in a prison van by secret route. Before 1976, execution in Texas was by electric chair, and, until 1995, the killings took place after midnight.

Every movement the prisoner makes in his final hours is observed and logged in excruciating detail by officers, first every 30 minutes, then in 15-minute intervals. At this time the prisoner is entitled to longer visits, and is allowed to call family members and speak to his lawyer. Many men take a shower, brush their teeth, and put on clean clothes before they're taken to the gurney.

Death Row offers society the illusion of finality in the service of justice. It is the "end of the line," yet the ripple effects of each execution reach out and move through us silently, like sound waves. A man takes a life, and we demand that, under specific circumstances, his life be sacrificed in return. When all the legal and political arguments are pushed aside, it seems so basic -- a clean trade. We crave simplicity in executing justice. But there is nothing simple about what we have created in the ritual of executing men.

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