Death is Texas growth industry


Executions: With eight prisons, including the site of a third of the U.S. executions in recent times, the town of Huntsville can't escape its reputation as a capital punishment capital.

April 24, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

HUNTSVILLE, TEXAS - People visit this East Texas town to catch a glimpse of its seven-story statue of favorite son Sam Houston. They shop the quaint row of antique stores, painted in desert shades to resemble a western frontier town. Or they hike in the Huntsville State Park and Sam Houston National Forest or scuba dive in an old limestone quarry.

But despite the town's best efforts, Huntsville is known best for killing people.

This is the capital punishment capital of the country. Officials at the Huntsville "Walls" Unit prison have executed about one-third of the roughly 700 inmates put to death nationwide since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Texas has executed 245 convicted killers, all of them put to death by lethal injection in Huntsville; the state that ranks second, Virginia, has executed 82.

The executions go largely unremarked upon in town, a community of 35,000 people, 70 miles north of Houston.

"I don't read the paper and I couldn't care less," says Dennis Miller, an antiques dealer who moved here 25 years ago to escape the commotion of Houston.

"It's CNN that cares about all that," Miller adds with a nod down the street toward the building where the executions occur. "To the people in Huntsville, it doesn't even matter what's going on down there."

"Down there" is just blocks away. The prison and death chamber are right downtown, three blocks off the historic square lined by the county courthouse and antique stores and gift shops.

This is a company town where the company happens to be the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. With eight prisons within the city or on its outskirts, the department employs 7,500. (The second largest employer, Sam Houston State University, has about 2,170 on staff.) It's the only state agency with headquarters outside Austin, the state capital.

Huntsville is also home of the Texas Prison Museum, where "Old Sparky," the decommissioned electric chair that killed 361 prisoners between 1924 and 1964, is the featured exhibit.

Beginning every morning at 6 a.m. - and continuing five or six more times throughout the day - a shrill whistle sounds, marking the times for head counting, work detail and more head counting at the Walls Unit, the oldest, most-storied prison in the system. Built in 1848, it's a red-brick fortress flanked by 32-foot walls topped by razor wire.

Uniformed prison guards, known as the "gray suits," are on patrol at guard posts atop the Walls Unit with revolvers, shotguns and AR-15 automatic rifles. And they seem ever-present. Still in uniform, they're at local gas stations, shopping at Wal-Mart and cheering on the sidelines of little league baseball games.

Inmates in their prison whites on supervised work detail have become such a part of the local landscape that "a painter doesn't even think of wearing a white uniform in this town because someone is going to stop you," says Mary McClain, a retired school teacher who runs the prison museum.

Newly released prisoners often duck into Cafe Texan on the town square for a quick meal before dashing up the street to catch a Greyhound bus out of Huntsville.

The local newspaper, the Item, typically runs a front-page story the day of and the day after each execution despite their reader advisory board's requests to give the stories less prominence -if any must be written at all.

After years of fielding questions and requests for directions to the prisons, the tourism council and chamber of commerce have added a "Prison Driving Tour" pamphlet to the racks of maps and brochures at the Sam Houston Statue Visitor Center just off Interstate 45.

"People do ask about them," says Jamie Matthews, who meets and greets tourists at the rustic building in the shadow of the Bunyanesque statue of Houston. "But we encourage them that this is the place where Sam Houston lived and practiced law, not just a place that kills people."

Matthews grew up in Cleveland, Texas, about 50 miles southeast of Huntsville. She moved 17 years ago to study psychology at Sam Houston State, where she met her husband.

"We ended up building a house and staying," says Matthews, now the mother of two teen-age boys. "It's a great town, close to the big cities but far enough into the country that we have plenty of fresh air and that small-town friendliness."

Situated among rolling hills and forests that belie Texas's reputation as a place so flat that the sky seems to stretch forever, Huntsville got its start as a trading post and logging town in the 1830s. It was named for founder Pleasant Gray's hometown of Huntsville, Ala., and incorporated first under the Republic of Texas.

When Texas became a state in 1846, Huntsville was a leading contender in the statewide referendum to choose the site of the capital. After Huntsville lost to a new outpost on the edge of the Comanche territory called Austin, the state legislature awarded the state penitentiary to Huntsville as a consolation prize.

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