Life and death in a Texas prison town Capital punishment is part of the routine in 'Death capital'

December 23, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HUNTSVILLE, Texas -- Like everything else in this state, Christmas decorations are big. Just down the highway in Houston, a 64-display, drive-through light show is said to be the world's largest. Even in a small town like Lufkin to the northeast, an entire city block explodes in megawatt, wall-to-wall white lights.

Here, the modest downtown gets into the spirit as well. A group of men spent a recent morning climbing up and down ladders to decorate the city's most distinctive building with gaily painted signs wishing all the happiest of holidays.

That the men are inmates and the building they're decorating is the prison where the bulk of the nation's executions takes place is something that barely rates comment here. The prison and its frequent executions are so entrenched in everyday life that they've achieved the white noise of near invisibility.

To the rest of the world, though, Huntsville increasingly represents the heart of the darkness that continues to surround the death penalty 22 years after the Supreme Court restored it. The pace of executions in the U.S. overall and Texas inparticular has picked up dramatically in recent years, throwing a spotlight on this small city where nearly one-third of the country's death penalties have been carried out.

"We're known as the death capital of the world, unfortunately," John Strickland, owner of a downtown restaurant, said ruefully of Huntsville.

On Friday, the number of executions in the U.S. since capital punishment was reinstated reached 500 when a man who had murdered an elderly couple was put to death by lethal injection in South Carolina.

In states such as Maryland, where the death penalty is rarely carried out, executions still have some shock value and generate blanket media coverage.

In Texas, though, it takes extraordinary circumstances to pique widespread interest -- the February execution of Karla Faye Tucker, the ax-murderer who became the first woman put to death in Texas since the Civil War, or the 11th-hour stay of execution in early December that spared the life of a Canadian citizen whose case had drawn outrage among diplomatic officials.

More commonly, executions come and go with little attention beyond a prison staff carrying out its careful, clinical procedures and a group of anti-death penalty protesters making their predictable stand outside "The Walls," as the two-block prison complex is called for it massive brick facades.

"It's like living on a military base that has nuclear weapons. You just don't think about it on a daily basis," said James Marquart, a professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University.

Still, he says the executions hover like "a kind of cloud" over the city. For all the stereotypes of big-talking, law-and-order Texans proudly leading the nation in executions, the death penalty is a real rather than theoretical event here and opinions about it can be more nuanced than expected.

Circus atmosphere

Strickland, whose Cafe Texan is two blocks from the prison, said he generally supports the death penalty but believes it should be carried out only against the most outrageous, cold-blooded murderers. The circus atmosphere generated by some executions has begun to bother him.

"With Karla Faye Tucker, everyone was saying, 'Oh, it brought you tons of business,' " said Strickland, who bought the 72-year-old restaurant in 1996. "We did have a 10, 15 percent increase in business, but afterward I decided if we ever have another major execution I'll close for the day rather than take the money. I don't feel good about profiting from someone else's misfortune."

As the only sit-down restaurant downtown, Cafe Texan plays host to locals and visiting media alike.

The 149-year-old Walls, Texas' oldest state penitentiary, seems like a benign neighbor. Pink and red roses bloom outside its main entrance, and, like good neighbors, inmates can be seen maintaining the property.

While death row inmates are housed about 12 miles northeast in a facility memorialized in Steve Earle's mournful song, "Ellis Unit One," they are brought to Walls for execution.

The Death House, as the area where the executions take place is called, is located in the northeast corner of the complex. In 1924, Texas began conducting all executions here.

Even without executions, Huntsville would be notable for its concentration of prisons: In addition to Walls, seven prisons are located in or near the city, housing a total of more than 7,400 inmates. They are counted in the city's population, which is about 29,000. On the other side of the law, Huntsville is also home to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which has about 6,700 employees in the area.

The second largest presence in Huntsville is Sam Houston State University, but it, too, has a link to the prison industry: The nation's largest criminal justice educational facility is located here, and inmate labor was used to construct a 200,000-square-foot complex for it.

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