Death Row Inmates in Texas Tell Their Stories in New Book
The U.S. state with the busiest death chamber and one of the largest
prison populations is Texas, where public opinion polls show the death
penalty is supported by more than 70 % of the population. A new book by
students at a Texas university compiles writings and art work done by
condemned prisoners. The book, Upon This Chessboard of Nights and Days,
Voices from Texas Death Row, was published by Texas Review Press, on the
campus of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville – a city that is the
location of one of the state's largest prisons and where executions are
carried out. The book provides a rare look into the minds of men who await
their moment in the death chamber.
Texas courts have condemned nearly 350 men and 10 women to be executed.
The men are kept in a high-security prison near Livingston, Texas, a short
drive from Huntsville, where the execution chamber, known as Ellis Unit
One is housed.
One of the men on death row is 31-year-old Robert Will, who, at the age of
22, took part in a crime that resulted in the murder of a police officer.
When asked to write something for the book on Texas' death row, he chose
not to write about himself, but about a fellow inmate who took his own
life. "My friend was a genuinely good person who just made some bad
choices in life," he wrote. Will says many inmates on death row struggle
with guilt over the people they killed as well as the anxiety of knowing
they are condemned to die."
"There is more stress on a person's psyche, because you are living under a
sentence of death and that can weigh heavily on a person's mind. I mean I
have seen guys literally go completely insane," he said.
In addition to writings, the new book contains art work done by death row
inmates, many of whom Will regards as true artists. "There is so much
talent back here. And I know that this might sound outrageous, but if
someone reads that book, perhaps it will not sound so outrageous. You have
individuals back here who, I mean, you have artists who are brilliant,
absolutely brilliant artists," he said.
Paul Ruffin with students
The idea for the book on death row originated with Sam Houston State
University English Professor Paul Ruffin, who teaches a class in which
students develop a book from inception to printing. He says this book
gives a voice to people who society has cast off. "What we wanted to do
was give them an outlet for their work, for their expression. We wanted to
know what it was like, day-to-day, living on death row," he said.
Around 50 male inmates submitted writings and art work. But none of the
condemned women responded, much to Ruffin's disappointment. He says they,
like many male inmates, might have distrusted the motives of the people
working on the book. A photo of a torn-up request for submissions is
featured in the book.
Paula Khalaf, student editor
But one of the book's seven student editors, Paula Khalaf, says those who
did contribute seemed to like the idea. "One of the inmates said, 'Thank
you for the opportunity to show that we are not monsters; we are human
beings,'" she said.
Khalaf says that before working on this book, she never thought much about
the death penalty, but she was deeply touched by reading the stories of
men who often grew up in broken homes and who, as one inmate says, "became
lost souls as children." "I have to say I have probably changed my
feelings about the death penalty. Probably, if I had to come down as
either for or against it at this point, I would be against it," she said.
But fellow editor James Ridgway has mixed feelings about that issue and
the prisoners themselves. "The first reaction is to be sympathetic, like,
'Oh, wow, these are really sad stories and I feel bad.' And then, the
second thing that happens is you look up the crime and you are horrified,"
Although the book does not describe the crimes committed by the inmate
contributors, the information is provided online by the Texas Department
of Criminal Justice.
Ridgway says working on the book challenged him intellectually and
emotionally. You are reading these things and this kind of dark mood sets
over you and again, whether you are for or against the death penalty, that
is not my point – it is that sifting through enough of that [writing] sort
of puts that mood on you," he said.
There is so much interest in the book that Professor Ruffin says his new
class is already at work on a follow-up book that will include creative
writing by inmates and various kinds of art work as well. One early
submission is a dice game made of scrap material by an inmate who also
included detailed, handwritten instructions on how to play the game he
invented in his cell.
Ruffin says one goal of this project has already been accomplished in that
the condemned men are no longer just names and numbers. "They have become
something like people we know now, whereas before they were obscure," he
Copies of the Texas death row book were sent to the inmate contributors.
Upon This Chessboard of Nights and Days, Voices from Texas Death Row is
available for purchase in bookstores as well as online.
(source: Voice of America News)