Thursday, February 01, 2007

Friday Cemetery Blogging

I was on death row last week.

One of the guys in my class works at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, which is where Texas kills people. There was supposed to be an execution that day, but a stay was granted and the warden had some free time. So, our classmate arranged a tour for us.

I don't know what I think about the death penalty. I am a fence straddler on the issue. Both sides have some valid arguments. And I am completely baffled by the opposition to DNA testing that might exonerate an inmate.

Texas prisons are immaculately clean. You could eat off of most surfaces. They still smell like feet warehouses, but they are clean. But the death chamber and its accompanying cells put the rest of the place to shame. It was laboratory clean.

The warden led us into a short hallway housing the four cells and a shower where the prisoner spends their last day and eats their last meal. On the wall opposite the cells was a table covered in a pristine white cloth. Spanish and English Bibles and other religious books were carefully spaced along its surface. At the far end of the table was also a guest register. There was no information in the book, just signatures of the Warden, the Lieutenants, the chaplain - evidently anyone who came onto the cellblock when a prisoner was present. A silent stream of witnesses to the presence of an unnamed guest.

The death chamber itself was much smaller than I thought. There was room only for the gurney and for us to stand shoulder to shoulder along the walls. The warden dropped his crusty, good ol' boy demeanor while we were there. He explained the very clinical process while my hand was on the dead man's pillow.

Everyone filed out very quietly.

The experience hasn't helped me come to any conclusions or have any great epiphany. But unlike other prison spaces, it was quiet and solemn. And respectful.

I'm still thinking.


ppb said...

Well, I'm glad that it wasn't really you on death row. h

Trace said...

Very thoughtful entry! Great photos of the crosses...thank you.

Lorna said...

do those who are executed get buried there - or do family have the right to burial elsewhere if they choose? Never thought about it before

as trace said - very thoughtful entry.


Princess of Everything (and then some) said...

I love how you wrote this.

Songbird said...

A silent stream of witnesses to the presence of an unnamed guest.
That's a very beautiful sentence.
I share your feeling of conflict. I hate to think that humans can feel so free to erase dispassionately the existence of other humans. But there are stories (Laci Peterson's murder, for instance) that make me feel some crimes have no other resolution. And there's nothing dispassionate about my response to those.
I appreciate hearing about your experience.

SpookyRach said...

Thanks for you comments.

Lorna: The families do have the choice to claim the body and have it buried where they chose. There is an excuted man buried in the cemetery here in Fake Cow City. I also think the prison cemetery has graves for both executed inmates and those who have died of more natural causes while in prison. Most of the stones do have names and birth and death dates. There are even a few that are the normal type of tombstone you would see in a regular cemetery. I guess the family couldn't afford to bury the inmate elsewhere, but could at least buy them a stone.

Miss Kitty said...

Wow. A Friday Cemetary Blogging post extraordinaire.

Very thoughtful and well-considered. Thanks, Spooky.

Quotidian Grace said...

Thanks for posting about this experience. The pictures add a lot to your reflections. I share your ambiguity about capital punishment.

A few years ago the chaplain from the Walls Unit in Huntsville spoke to our Sunday School class at church about his experiences. It left a lot of us thinking.

klasieprof said...

I've been inside many prisons. It is just weird. It is almost as though you can feel the souls and anguish of those that passed through before.
My brother and I, used to have a contest on where we could call our mom from --the wierdest place. He started in the 80's with the first Cell phone.
ME--"Hi Mom, I"m inside Jackson Prison". Yah. I don't think any mom wants to hear that.
I won.

Mary Beth said...


Diesel said...

Excellent post, Spooky.

Patti said...

This made me remember my childhood dog, Lucy. She snapped at my kitten and killed her. My dad asked me if Lucy should be put down, and I said, No, that would only make it worse." At age 11, that was my first hint of being a pro-life person.
I felt the same way when, a few years later, my grandfather was mugged and beaten to death. I didn't want his killers killed either.
Vengeance belongs to the Lord.

Sue said...

Hold on. I got stuck on the part where there is opposition to DNA testing that might free a wrongly convicted inmate. WTF? That's just twisted. It seems to me that before a life is ended, they might want to make sure they have the right person on the table.

We don't have the death penalty in Canada, and I'm glad. There have been a few heinous criminals in Canada in recent years that have made me wish, even if for a moment, that we did have a death penalty...but in the end, I think they get their due in prison.

Thanks for a thoughtful post.

Mile High Pixie said...

Remarkable. I'm glad to hear at least that those present were respectful in that place.

don't eat alone said...


Good stuff. The opposition to the DNA testing seems to validate my sense that the death penalty feeds our appetite for revenge more than dispensing judgment. Your post, however, and your pictures moved me to more than argument over an issue. Thanks.


Christopher said...

make me think, as well. and pray.

Cowtown Pattie said...

Like you, I am a fence straddler. If one of my family members were a victim, it might change my perspective...I am not sure.

Great post, Rach...

little david said...

I just finished reading John Grisham's The Chamber. The convicted criminal once belonged to the KKK and his estranged grandson becomes his lawyer. The book very clearly depicts the issues surrounding the death penalty. I recommend it, although you won't suddenly feel better after finishing it.

amy said...

I enjoyed your post, and found it very interesting. I have an extreme aversion to the death penalty, and have been a vocal oppenent against it for years. My main problem is that those who can afford good lawyers, and a drawn-out trial rarely get the death penalty, where as those who can not are frequently put to death. Add to that the resistance to DNA testing, and it looks like a very evil thing.