In the Heart of Darkness

"Huntsville... that place gives me the creeps... The penitentiary is the main employer down there and it always makes me wonder who should be behind those walls, the prisoners or the citizens."
- Dallas-based photographer Phil Hollenbeck on his visits to Huntsville, TX

Heading south on Highway 45 just outside of Huntsville, the Death Capitol of Texas, one might see vultures circling the dark piney woods that surround the little town.

Huntsville is home to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Huntsville "Walls" Unit, the facility -- one of seven prisons in the area -- that houses Texas's infamous Death House. So far this year, the State of Texas has executed eight people charged with violent crimes against humanity. Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 and reimplemented in 1982, there have been 313 people terminated by the State of Texas. Virginia is second on the capital punishment list, with a total of 89 executions. All of Texas's 313 human lives were taken inside the "heart of darkness," which is Huntsville.

The Walls Unit is not in the middle of the piney Huntsville State Park, just south of the town itself, or in some other remote place. Rather, it is in the middle of town, located just next to Sam Houston University and surrounded by homes in which Huntsville's citizens live and raise their children.

The Walls Unit, named after the 32-foot-high brick wall that surrounds the facility, was built in 1848 and houses 1,700 inmates and the "Death House," where executions take place.

Jeff McCarthy, a waiter at the Tejas Cafe, is from Houston, but moved to Huntsville to go to school, majoring in pre-law. At one time he lived across the street from the prison. McCarthy and his friends have a ritual: They have a burger and a beer across the street from the Walls Unit every time there is an execution, at a restaurant called Killer Burgers.

"I think that the executions do affect us to some degree, but the executions aren't really publicized," McCarthy said. "Unless, there is a 'big' person being executed and there are protesters, nobody ever talks about it. Also, the prison is the main industry. If you don't work for the prison or for the university, then you aren't working. [To understand Huntsville], you have to look at the economics; whenever the prison has layoffs the town really feels it."

McCarthy said the Walls Unit in the middle of town never really bothered him until he found himself looking over the prison walls from his apartment at night. "It is crazy that the prison is in the middle of the town," he said. "At night when you drive by, all the cells have cable television, and in every single room you can see the televisions flicker....It is weird to see all those lights flickering."

The general consensus around town is that the prison is a good thing because of the money and jobs it generates.

Chris Schmitt, receptionist/secretary for the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce, is pleased to give out any information visitors might need to enjoy Huntsville more effectively. She lives just outside of Huntsville, having moved from Houston after 19 years to get away from the traffic. "The prison executing people doesn't bother us one bit," Schmitt said. "In fact, that prison, the Walls Unit, is just down the street. Here is a map with the route highlighted."

As you enter Huntsville on 45, the first thing you see -- besides the prison just off the highway -- is the state Prison Museum, where Jessica Kunkel works as a cashier. "The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDC) and then the university are the two largest employers," she said. "Huntsville would certainly not be the same city if the prison wasn't here. The college wouldn't be the college without the prison because our biggest program is the criminal justice program and it wouldn't be as extensive as it is without the neighboring prison system."

The Prison Museum was opened in 1989 and its purpose is to "preserve and display prison artifacts as well as educate the public on the history and culture of Texas prisons."

According to Kunkel, the Prison Museum's biggest attraction is "Old Sparky," the electric chair used from 1918 to 1964. "We have people on weekends who are visiting family members and friends in the prison units who come to the museum," Kunkel said. "We also have a lot of criminal justice majors from Sam Houston as well as correctional officers and other employees of the TDC. Also, we are located off of Highway 45 and we get a lot of [tourists] who come in because they have seen our sign and stop."

Although the prison is Huntsville's biggest employer, most of the town's citizens are reluctant to talk about the ways the deaths within the Walls Unit affect them.

"We are probably a little more apathetic about the executions," Kunkel admitted. "I would say your average native Huntsvillian is less likely to be one of the protesters of an execution than someone from somewhere else. We are less likely to be aware when an execution is happening than someone else, even though it happens in our town."

James Willett, former Walls Unit warden and current Director of the Prison Museum, said he had seen his fair share of death within the walls. In fact, he had seen so much death he cannot recall exactly how much: "The media reported about 89 when I retired, but I don't know because I have never sat down and figured it up. Eighty-nine executions in the three years I was a warden there."

Willett said his job as warden was not a pleasant one, and witnessing executions affected him greatly. "It was very much a difficult job, just in watching somebody die," Willett said. "There is not anything enjoyable about that."

Willett moved to Huntsville in 1970 and has enjoyed living and prospering with the city and its people. "I think without the prison system you would probably be lucky to find a red light here in town," Willett said. "I don't think the people in Huntsville [are] affected the way most outsiders think so. I always get asked questions about the executions here in Huntsville, but most of the people don't pay any attention to it. Typically, I like to say that if you went down to the local cafe on the square and asked them about the execution that was going to happen that evening, if there was one, you would be telling most of them something that they don't know....It is just something that goes on here...something that isn't necessarily drawn upon. They just try and keep it out of their lives. Whether you are for it or against it, it gets kind of old awful quick around here."

Current Governor Rick Perry, the Republican who followed George W. Bush into the Texas Governor's office, had nothing to say about the people of Huntsville or how the death row located there has touched their lives for good or ill. (Incidentally, Bush as Governor reviewed and approved 152 of the 313 executions since 1982 in Texas.) Perry did send a letter to me with these comments concerning what he and the "vast majority" of Texans feel about the death penalty:

"Like the vast majority of Texans, I believe that the death penalty is an appropriate response for the most violent crimes against our fellow human beings. In fact, I believe capital punishment affirms the high value we place on innocent life, because it tells those who would prey on our citizens that they will pay the ultimate price for unthinkable acts of violence.

"The power to make life and death decisions is the most sobering responsibility imaginable. I have always exercised this power with the gravity due such a decision, and I will continue to review each capital punishment case brought before me to ensure that due process is served."

The executions that occur in Huntsville have produced a devastating apathy in the citizens of the town. The majority of the people of Huntsville have lost the will to worry, wonder, or care what happens inside the walls of the seven prisons located in the area -- as long as what happens stays inside those walls. The Walls Unit was built to keep the prisoners in, but metaphorically it keeps the prisoners hidden, so the citizens who live and breathe because of the prison don't have to think about the reality of what is occurring inside the Walls Unit. And to themselves.

As Willett said, "When I left [the Walls Unit], I was glad that I didn't have to mess with those types of things anymore."

Vivica Defrancesco, a waitress at the TW's Steakhouse, located on the town square a mere block from the prison, said she couldn't remember why she moved from nearby Houston to Huntsville. "Personally," she said, "I think this is a dead little town."

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