Texas Toughest in a Tough America

Texas Toughest in a Tough America
[Finding Blue America 13] The world capital of capital punishment, Huntsville, Texas

"Have a seat."

We often hear these words, but sometimes there could be none more horrible. I was looking at the electric chair at the Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas.

Its nickname was "Old Sparky," on which 361 people sat and never stood up again. Old Sparky retired in 1964 when the U.S. Supreme Court placed a moratorium on the death penalty as a "cruel and unusual punishment," according to the federal constitution, but it was restored as a novelty in the Prison Museum, built in 1989.

After the U.S. Supreme Court changed its mind and lifted the moratorium in 1976, Texas replaced the electric chair with lethal injection, arguing that electrocution was "too cruel." The electric chair, though, had itself been introduced for humanitarian reasons in 1923, when inmates on death row were still hanged in public. Public execution, supposed to deter people perpetrating crimes, turned into a circus, which enticed onlookers, who were so excited that they took kids to the scene.

The state government accordingly moved the venue to the Huntsville prison, where it introduced the chair. The museum says the person who fabricated the electric chair was also an inmate who once faced the death penalty for murder, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Finally, he was released, owing to his contribution of a new way of executing his fellow prisoners. One question occurred to me: Was he a cruel betrayer or a humanist, helping his fellow prisoners be killed more comfortably?

The museum kindly explained how to execute by lethal injection. First, the condemned person is bound to a gurney, and two needles (one is a back-up) are then inserted into usable veins in the inmate's arms. The first is a harmless saline solution that is started immediately. Then, at the warden's signal, a curtain is raised exposing the inmate to witnesses and possibly relatives and friends in an adjoining room. The inmate is given a chance to say last words.

According to James Laxer, author of a book titled Discovering America: travels in the land of guns, god, and corporate gurus, when one inmate requested a final cigarette, he was told that this was out of the question, that this was a "smoke-free facility."

This country, whose economy was founded on the successful cultivation of the cash crop, tobacco, must have looked extremely hypocritical to this smoker inmate. The inmate is then injected with sodium thiopental -- an anesthetic, which puts the inmate to sleep. Next flows pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the entire muscular system and stops the inmate's breathing. Finally, an injection of potassium chloride stops the heart.

Death results from anesthetic overdose and respiratory and cardiac arrest while the condemned person is unconscious. It takes seven minutes and costs $86.

Not only was Texas the first state to execute an inmate by lethal injection but also it has executed 323 death row inmates by this method an eye-popping number compared to the total number of 918 executed inmates in the nation since 1976. One single state has accounted for 35 percent of all executions.

In front of Huntsville Prison Museum

Texans are really tough. Thirteen out of 22 teenagers executed nationwide since 1985 were killed in Texas. The execution of minors, however, was outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. This is why Huntsville, the state's venue of execution, is called the "world capital of capital punishment."

I was curious as to how its residents felt about living in such a World Capital. Roy Birkhead, whom I met in the Prison Museum, was a retired school principal who described himself as a conservative and strongly supported the death penalty. He said, "Execution should be done somewhere." I asked further, "Even so, people are being killed where you live. How do you feel about it?"

"I believe people should be held responsible for what they do."
"Do you agree on executing even teenagers?"
"Seventeen-year olds as well as 50-year olds can pull the trigger."

He added that the unemployment rate of Huntsville is exceptionally low, as low as 2 percent, thanks to the prison economy. Indeed, one fourth of the 35,000 residents work for the prison system. Thus it was not that strange to hear strong support for capital punishment from whoever I met in Huntsville.

Leaflets recruiting correctional officer candidates piled up on the museum counter. If you are eligible to work in the United States, at least 18 years old with a High School Diploma or GED and no record of conviction of a felony, you can apply, the leaflet says. According to the salary table, full-time correctional officers are paid $1,716 a month the first year, up to $2,589 a month in their ninth year.

The museum said that to regulate lawless "Wild West" behavior, tough laws and strict execution were necessary, and that, according to polls, an absolute majority in Texas supports capital punishment. This is understandable, although I still wonder why this most self-professedly Christian country not only keeps capital punishment but even faces no significant opposition to it, while Western Europe and Canada have already abolished it.

Somehow people who are opposed to capital punishment are stigmatized as "liberal," and liberals are getting viewed as "immoral." It is a recent development that crime has replaced poverty and racial discrimination as a major tem on the social agenda in the United States, as indicated by the lift of the death penalty moratorium by the Supreme Court in 1976.

There is saying in Korea that though you may hate crime, do not hate the person who perpetrates crime. Its rationale is that human beings can make mistakes and should be given a chance to be forgiven and to repent. If executed, there will be no chance left for criminals to repent.

The brochure put out by the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce gave an example of a successful repentance. John Wesley Hardin, who claimed to have slain forty-four men, was known as the "meanest man that ever lived" and once allegedly shot a man for snoring. Hardin was captured in 1877 and sentenced to spend the next quarter of a century in Huntsville.

While in prison he studied law and theology. After serving only fifteen years of his sentence he was pardoned by the governor, and later opened a law office in El Paso. I was wondering why he had not initially been sentenced to be hanged but the brochure said that, during the 1800's, horse theft was considered a much worse offense than murder in so far as legal sanctions were concerned.

Punishments are getting tougher in the nation as well as in Texas. The federal Justice Department announced in June, 2004, that the inmate population grew by 2.9 percent to 2.1 million people in 2003. There were 715 inmates for every 100,000 Americans in mid-2003, up from 703 a year earlier, the DOJ report found.

The inmates' ratio to the population is a world record, one the United States has held for a long time. According to the British Interior Department, in 2001, the three quarters of 203 countries have fewer than 150 inmates for every 100,000 residents, while the United States stood out with 686 inmates. Korea's figure was 133.

Is this a proud record? It depends on who gives the answer. John Ashcroft, then Attorney General, said, "It is no accident that violent crime is at a 30-year low while the prison population is up. Violent and recidivist criminals are getting tough sentences while law-abiding Americans are enjoying unprecedented safety."

This is typical conservative logic. To separate between good and bad men is the key to a stable society; crimes are what evil people perpetrate and could be eradicated by isolating or even sending evil people to the other world, a view that defines crime not as a socially structured problem but as a person matter. So that building more penitentiaries for punishment is a priority for conservatives over providing education and career training for inmates to be integrated into society.

Looking at other countries that top the incarceration list, I found the peer group was not all that distinguished: Russia (638), Kazakhstan (522), Turkmenistan (489) and Ukraine (406), all former members of the Soviet block. Things those countries share are poverty and human rights violation.

The United States was not like that just three decades ago. Its inmate population was only 330,000 in 1972, slightly above 100 inmates for every 100,000 residents, a level the United States had kept since 1925. The inmate population has shot up seven-fold in the last 30 years. What has happened in the United States? Did another civil war break out, and has the government held prisoners of war?

Criminologists Alfred Blumstein and Allen Beck examined the increase of the prison population for the period 1980-96 and concluded that changes in crime itself explained only 12 percent of the prison population rise, whereas changes in sentencing policy accounted for 88 percent of the increase. In other words, the classes of crime to be punished by imprisonment have been expanded, and the same crime has been dealt with by harder punishments, resulting in the explosion of the inmate population.

Despite the fact that, since the mid-1990s, the crime rate has decreased, the incarceration rate has increased. Mandatory sentencing promoted as "Truth in Sentencing" and the "Three Strikes" laws are two of those policy changes. For example, California's "three strikes" law applies a sentence of 25 years-to-life imprisonment for a third felony following two previous serious or violent felonies.

In 2003, a man convicted of stealing $153 worth of videotapes from a department store received a sentence of 50 years to life, as the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the California law as constitutional. Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a non-profit organization, in 2003 wrote in his report titled "Comparative International Rates of Incarceration: An Examination of Causes and Trends," "Thus, California taxpayers will spend at least $1 million over the next 50 years to lock up this videotape thief."

The reason sentencing has been harsher is not because more people commit crime but because more people have taken stronger self-protective measures for themselves and their property. According to James Lynch, a criminologist, the United States incarcerates more and for longer periods of time in the case of property crime and drug offenses than do similar nations.

Burglars in the U.S., for example, served an average of 16.2 months in prison, compared 5.3 months in Canada and 6.8 months in England/Wales. The war on drugs President Ronald Reagan declared contributed to producing a lot of convicts and ex-convicts. People imprisoned for drug offenses number a half million, a skyrocketing surge from about 40,000 in 1980.

One fourth of the whole inmate population are drug offenders. Even among drug offenders, however, there is a disparity. The Sentencing Project says that for possession with intent to distribute powder cocaine a conviction carries a five-year sentence for quantities of 500 grams or more. Possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, however, carries a five-year sentence for only five grams. This is called a 100:1 quantity ration, though the Project says that the two types of cocaine cause similar physical reactions.

What is different between them is the race of users and sellers of the drugs. Defendants convicted of crack possession in 1994 were 84.5 percent black, 10.3 percent white, and 5.2 percent Hispanic, whereas defendants convicted of powder possession were 58 percent white, 26.7 percent black, and 15 percent Hispanic. In addition, since the cheaper drug, crack, draws more punishment than powder, the disparity accelerates the racial imbalance in prison.

Blacks make up 60 percent of the inmate population. According to Justice Department's statistics, the chance that a black baby born today will go to prison is 29 percent. There is another statistic that 75 percent of blacks living in Washington, DC, have or will have been in prison at some point in their lifetime.

Traditionally, blacks have voted for Democrats. Republicans and conservatives don't need to worry about the racial disparity, which is an encouraging phenomenon to them, because current or former felons have lost the right to vote due to various disenfranchisement laws.

In Florida, the 827,207 disfranchised could not vote in the presidential election of 2000, the result of which was decided by a margin of 537 votes in that state. The Justice Policy Institute, a non-profit organization, announced in 2004 that the more Republican the states were, the more people were incarcerated and disfranchised. As a result, the prison industry has grown into a 40-billion-dollar-a-year business.

Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, says, "The prison system just grows like a weed in the yard." Deteriorating small towns in rural areas are competing against each other to build new prisons, while 13 million Americans have been convicted of felonies and spent time in prison more than the population of Greece.

Another rarity I have witnessed is that prison museums are everywhere: Alcatraz, Folsom and San Quentin in California, Rawlings in Wyoming, Canon City in Colorado, etc. Prison is incorporated into mainstream culture as entertainment. The Huntsville Museum recreates a 9 x 6 feet jail cell open to visitors, lending a striped prison shirt for $3.

People enjoy becoming instant prisoners, wearing the shirt in the cell. The prison in the museum is not any more a painful place but a small theme park for visitors to experience a novelty. Newly built prisons, before having "real guests," are open to people who are willing to pay an expensive lodging charge for a few days, which is becoming a new opening event in the United States. There is an impenetrable wall between prisoners and non-prisoners, and the latter confirm the fortune of not being the former by experiencing prison for a short period of time.

In that regard, Huntsville might presumably be the very best. The Chamber of Commerce provides prison information and a map for a driving tour. The route runs around the Huntsville "Walls" Unit, which is located in a downtown residential area. The red-brick building, erected in 1849, looked like a campus building. As I entered it, however, it revealed its true identity right away, with double iron-grated doors, behind which 1700 inmates were locked, surrounded by walls as tall as 30 feet.

Another interesting building was an enormous brick stadium, looking like a failed copy of the Roman Coliseum, just outside the east wall, where the Texas Prison Rodeo, called "The Wildest Show Behind Bars," entertained thousands of spectators from 1931 to 1986. It was, rather, a rare chance for prisoners to watch spectators on every Sunday in October. When the 55-year tradition ended in 1986, primarily due to the deterioration of the old rodeo arena, the chance was gone forever.

There was a bus station between 12th Street and J Avenue, where released inmates departed for freedom and a new life. Approximately 100 inmates are released per day, getting on a Greyhound with $50 received from the prison in their pocket. But the new reality they face as ex-inmates is harsh. Ex-convicts cannot have a driver's license in some states. Drug offenders cannot get a job in places like Wal-Mart. Student loans for tuition are not available to ex-convicts.

The Legal Action Center, a criminal justice policy group, released a report in 2004 saying that all 50 states have adopted laws to bar former convicts from scores of professions requiring state licenses, including barbering and landscape architecture. Most states allow employers to deny jobs to people who were arrested but never convicted of a crime, not to mention that most states allow employers to deny jobs to anyone with a criminal record, regardless of the individual's work history or personal circumstances or how long ago the crime was committed.

According to Harry Holzer, professor at Georgetown University, 60 percent of companies surveyed answered that they would probably not or never hire ex-convicts. The world outside the prison is another prison to them. Seventy out of each 100 inmates released bounce back from this "freedom," returning to the real prison. Recidivism may result in permanent imprisonment.

The last destination on the Prison Driving Tour is the Peckerwood Hill Cemetery, called "The Captain Joe Byrd Memorial Cemetery," which is the final resting place for over 1,900 prisoners whose remains were unclaimed or unwanted when they died. It was used until the late 19th century and abandoned under dense and wild thickets until Captain Joe Byrd, long-time assistant warden at Walls Unit, uncovered and started to maintain it in 1962. The cemetery was a matrix of several vertical and horizontal rows and columns of white concrete crosses, mostly with no more than prison ID numbers inscribed on them, creating a huge matrix like a code book. Nobody had expected that their identity would be sought after their burial.

Maybe that's true. Even their family members didn't want to remember their death and life. It was a perfect separation, whether caused by inmates themselves or society. The Peckerwood Hill Cemetery completed inmates' final journey into anonymity by erasing the last trace of their life. The undecipherable tombstones symbolize permanent disfranchisement.

2005-08-28 22:23
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