A Day in Huntsville, TX…View on the Death Penalty…

Having grown up in Texas, I grew up knowing that the death penalty is part of the fabric here.  Most believe an “eye for an eye” down here.  I can understand why being that I am the survivor of a murder victim.  I used to be for the death penalty after that happened.  I am not for it anymore.  I hope this will help people to understand why as this has even put me at odds with friends and family, but they do not have to live with it–I do.  Now they can deal with it.

I began working for the Texas Department of Corrections in 2006.  I had been a school teacher prior to that and can do so again.  For the first 3 1/2 years it was a good job.  There were times when it was dangerous–sure.  I didn’t dwell on it when I walked out of the front gate, though.  When one first starts, he or she feels a sense of purpose.  They feel that they can make a difference in that environment.  I handled offenders the way I handled students.  I gave them only what they were entitled to–nothing more or nothing less.  I also gave them respect because it was not my job to punish them a second, third and fourth time–if you understand what I mean.

They were sent there to serve their time by a judge or a jury.   THAT alone is their punishment.  However, there are officers who commit practices that I find to be unethical and cruel when it comes to dealing with these offenders.  Many do what I call “tag-teaming”.  This is when an officer will write a disciplinary case, and then his (or her partner) will write another one timed 3-5 minutes later.  I could tell by the way many of the 2nd cases were written that there is no way that the later offense happened, and as a sergeant, I am not about to jeopardize the safety of other officers because someone else in uniform is on a power trip–and yes it DOES happen.  When I tried to discuss that,  that is when the upper administration became a bit unhappy with me.  I never had a Use of Force because I knew how to calm these offenders down and get to the bottom of the issues leading up to the disturbances.  This didn’t set will with the administration either because it has been my experience that they just simply aren’t content unless officers go in with the cavalry and waste a ton of time an energy putting gas in a wing.  Many times it is not necessary to do this either. I know from experience.

Now I want to talk about a day of training in Huntsville for the Sergeant‘s Academy.   All of us who were newly promoted went to the Walls Unit, which is where executions are held.

Here is another view of the prison.  You will definitely know how it  got its name, but there are not many prisons that have real “walls” around them anymore.  Most of them have tons of barbed wire fences…This unit is more famous for an event known as “The Carrasco Incident”.   Here is a link for the story on that:  http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/first100/884265.html

What the article doesn’t tell you is that when the offenders were coming down the steps with the hostages,  the “Trojan Horse” shield they had made from some chalkboards and such was to be hit with water from a high pressure hose to (hopefully) knock the thing down and expose everyone so the officers would have a clear shot at the offenders involved if needed.   People ended up dead when this happened because the waterhose failed (technical issue), but it caused the offenders to start shooting at hostages.  When it was over, several were dead.  As a reminder, the bullet holes on the steps of the library and such were never fixed.  The area was left “as-is”.  However there is one more thing Huntsville is more famous for and it is the executions carried out there, most notably (in our time) that of Karla Faye Tucker Brown…I find it ironic that everyone threw such a fit about her execution–but not over any other female who has been executed since.  I wonder what will come about if they do execute Darlee Routier?  You know–that woman they say stabbed her two kids to death?

Anyway, on this particular day, I got to see the place where those people were killed during that Carrasco Incident in 1974.  I also got to see the building where “Chief Satanta” jumped out of the hospital window  to his death.  He was another famous prisoner there.

http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/treasures/indians/satanta.html    And this article covers the how and why of his being there and dying there.  And his story was rather interesting.  I am part Native American so I tend to read stuff like this a bit…

Anyway, we were escorted to the “Death Row“.  In the movies, they always make this place look bigger than it truly is.  I am surprised that they could get a gurney in and out of that side gate they always show because the opening is barely wide enough for a person to fit through.  We were first shown the cells they are housed in.  One has sheets, blanket, and such.  Offenders can have magazines.  They spend their last hours in these cells being prepared for the inevitable.  There are a few myths that I will dispel here though.  They do NOT get the last meal of their choice unless it is on the menu.  In other words, these offenders are not going to get treated to a Ribeye steak with all the trimmings.  That is not served in a Texas prison.  The way it is viewed is that if the taxpayers are funding it, they will get whatever the prison can make available on the unit–not go out or their way to give the offender what he/she wants.  They can receive calls.  If they behave, they can stay in the comfortable cell–but if not, they are moved to a cell that has absolutely nothing but a toilet and sink in it–and if they are acting really whacked out, they get stripped and can only have what is called a “suicide blanket”.

Contrary to the rules, they might be allowed 1 cigarette or a dip of snuff the day before, as they receive an explanation of what is going to happen the next day, unless the governor can issue a stay of execution.  Yes, its contraband, but it is allowed and Rick Perry does know about this–and so has every governor before him.  I mean, if they are going to die anyway, why raise hell over that one thing?  The state cannot take more away from them at this point anyway.

NOTE:  Contrary to the note the writer of  “Coyote on a Fence”, Bruce Graham,  put out–a Texas Governor only has the power to issue a ONE TIME 30 day stay per offender.  That’s it.  They cannot commute a sentence either.  That is up to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.   The governor doesn’t make or interpret the laws.  He does only what our state constitution allows–and that IS the one time 30 day stay.

In fact, the reason that the Governor’s Office no longer has that power goes all the way back to the period from the earliest days of corrections to the 1960’s.  People “bought” pardons (and what amounts to slave labor) right and left in many states–Texas included, so that power was taken from the governor and, as mentioned earlier, it rests with the board of Pardons and Paroles.  THEY are the ones that should be getting the hate mail and such if a writer wishes to engage in that type of activity.

Anyway, as we toured this building, we realized how SMALL it truly is.  Check out this picture of the execution chamber:

The angle of this shot leaves a lot to be desired as far as detail.  It does not show the microphone that his hanging directly above the gurney.  See that little square on the left and the window?  That window is what the executioner is standing behind.   There is a window on the other side where family members sit in two separate rooms–very small ones.  The rooms are limited to only a few observers.  To illustrate how small this room really is–here is a clue.  The arm piece is only extended to the right in this picture, but there is another arm on the left.  That is the one the IV goes into.  The IV is ran from behind that window through that little square and inserted into the offenders arm by another medical professional.  If they cannot find a vein in the arms, it goes in the neck or foot or something…They will find a vein, believe me.  The drugs are given manually through the IV tube one at a time to ensure the right effect in the right order.  You do not want to see an offender conscious while going through this–I promise you that.   The room is very tiny and green.  There is only standing room for about 5-6 people in it.  I’ll put it to you this way, if one is claustrophobic, this will set them off in a panic attack.

You have seen how in the movies that the drugs are automatically injected via a machine right?  Not so in Texas.  Why?  Because sometimes they malfunction.   The executioner is a medical professional who always remains unidentified.  Lawyers have tried to get court orders to make the identities of executioners public and get copies of where the drugs used are purchased and the court refuses both requests every time because many of the offenders executed have gang members on the outside that would kill the executioner or blow up the place where the drugs are acquired, so it is common sense (rightfully so) that the identities are NEVER revealed.  I fully agree with that.

They also wrap the hands of offenders in ACE bandages once strapped in so that they cannot shoot the finger at the victim’s family members or make signs of any kind.  However seeing the place changed my mind about supporting the death penalty because I started thinking about it closely and one thing came to mind.  Even if they caught the person who killed my aunt and I had to witness this, it would not bring me any closure because her space at the table would always be empty.   It would also wreck  another family.  Not all offenders’ families are into the crimes their loved ones are being sent to death for–but I’ve seen how they get blamed for the crimes also.  They are losing a loved one also–and as an officer, I can fully empathize with both sets of family members on an issue like this.  They are not to blame for the actions of the offender and it is time for society to back off of the blame game.

After being strapped in they are allowed to make a last statement if they wish.  Once the drugs are injected, it is over within a few  minutes–usually.  It sounds simple but it really isn’t.  There are other issues that would have affected me as an officer if I had to deal with that.  First off, there is no glory in taking a life.  Sometimes it may be necessary to do so, but when a person is killed in this circumstance,  there seems to be a mentality among other officers who do not work on a death row unit that does not resonate well with my inner being.  They will actually cheer in shift turnout when it is announced that specific offenders (usually child killers) are put to death.  Regardless of what they have done–the dead should always be respected.  Even the worst of people among us should not affect us in such a way that we become like some of them actually are–cheering over a life being taken..  Some of them rejoiced in the free-world when they committed their acts, so why would officers lower themselves to this mentality? I don’t know but it does happen.

It is this “gang mentality” among officers and supervisors that really troubles me.   I can watch “The Green Mile” and fully understand the intentions of all but the idiotic officer–the one that didn’t wet the sponge…Get my drift?  The others officers portrayed were definitely more “humane” than that character was.  I think it is tougher on these offenders if they have to live in a prison than to die in one.  They always have to look over their shoulders for “Bubba” or “Big Betty”. Besides that, eliminating the expense of so many appeals would cut a lot of costs in this country.  Think about it.  We might need “less lawyers”.

Either way, I know now I could never work in a unit and aid in taking a life like that.  It is one thing to shoot an escapee because they pose a direct threat.  It is another to have to work in that environment and see other people rejoicing at the taking of another life–regardless of whether or not one thinks it is justified.  To me to cheer when a life is taken and such is just another example of how working in that environment can really have an effect on one’s  mentality.  I chose to walk away from that. I chose a normal existence again.  For those working in that industry, I apologize if my views offend you, but what I  have witnessed entitles me to them.  The suicide and divorce rates are very high among correctional officers.  It is a line of work that affects one’s mentality in ways I never expected.  I got out of it so that I could get back to being “me” again.  Slowly I got there.

I can go to a restaurant and still have to sit to where I can see the exits and even police officers I know understand why that is.  At least I don’t look over my shoulder every time I turn around like I used to do.  It is definitely nice to be called by my name rather than  “Sarge” or “Boss Lady”.   It is also nice to know that I no longer let that line of work affect me as it did in the past.  As I said, I almost went right back into “recluse” mode.  I worked around (depending upon the unit) 500-2500 reasons not to trust anyone in the human race, not including some of the officers and administrators, that’s for sure.  There are many good officers, but I can assure you there are others who are evil to the core–and some of them make their way into administration.  I can never be a part of that negative environment again.  I saw much more than I have depicted here–and I don’t care to see it again.

One comment on “A Day in Huntsville, TX…View on the Death Penalty…

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