Texas Le Sunday church meeting in the dayroom because the photographer explained at length what he was trying to do. “I explained how it was our intention to try to see how the men on the Row created their own world and survived the years there. We wanted to find out who they were, to get beyond the mug shots that are almost always the final representation of a Death Row inmate’s life.” Beavers’ incarceration mug shot, taken in 1988 yet indeed accompanying the execution dispatches, is that of an unapologetic thug. In Light’s final portrait, Beavers looks directly, forthrightly through the bars, as though the lens of the camera were his fate. He told a reporter, “I think lay ing down my life is one way to apologize.” It is difficult to say much original about Death Row, even more difficult to conceive the perspective of those imprisoned there. They seem like men who have learned to breathe underwater; visitors descend for a few hours clothed in freedom, and we take our oxygen with us when we leave. Several of these photographs portray the Texas Death Row garment workers, earning a few privileges and killing the dead time by sewing guards’ clothing. It occurred to me that the only landscape I’ve known akin to the one Light paints here is a factory shop floor. The analogy does not lift the spirit. Although both Light and Suzanne Donovan clearly empathize with the prisoners, this is not a sentimental book. Donovan’s text is thorough and descriptive but without special pleading, and among Light’s photographs are interspersed a handful of official summaries of the inexplicably brutal crimes committed by some of these men. Few deserve either freedom, forgiveness, or sympathy. Yet it is a blinkered, self-deluded, and yes, barbarian arrogance to presume that we have the right to empower the state to kill them in our names, in calculated, indifferent, and cold blood. Massacre A Visit to the Huntsville Abattoir BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEN LIGHT THE EXECUTION MACHINE: Texas Death Row. An HBO Film. Directed by Marc Levin. 1 f capital punishment were indeed the decisive deterrent to social mayhem that its proponents maintain, then Texas, where more than 400 men await imminent extinction by lethal injection, would be nirvana with freeways. However, homicide rates in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio exceed that of New York, which only recently and reluctantly re sumed executions. Since the 1976 reinstate ment of the death penalty, Huntsville, the state’s correctional capital, where 7,400 inmates are housed in seven facilities, has become the most active human abattoir in North America. So far this year, the Lone Star State has terminated a record twentyeight lives, more than six times as many as Alabama or Arkansas, its closest competitors in the slaughter sweepstakes. And the pace is being accelerated. The average sojourn on death row used to be nine years. But new federal and state regulations have dramatically abbreviated the appeals process. Life for most is short and precious, but for the temporary residents of Ellis Unit 1, vestibule to the Texas execu tion chamber, it is brief and cheap. Director Marc Levin, who was granted unprecedented access to the state’s death row, employs occasional fast-motion photography to convey the haste. Few inmates ever return alive from Ellis Unit 1, but viewers of The Execution Machine: Texas Death Row, are permitted a short, safe visit. The fiftyminute film, produced by Levin and Daphne Pinkerson for HBO’s America Undercover documentary series, was first shown by the premium cable channel on September 22. Scheduled dates for repeat broadcasts included September 30 and October 8. The title of Levin’s film uses the metaphor of machine to suggest that the OCTOBER 10, 1997 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25
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