Page 1


IMAGINE SPENDING 23 HOURS A DAY IN A CEMENT ENCLOSURE THE SIZE OF A BATHROOM. NOW IMAGINE SITTING IN THAT SMALL ROOM NEARLY ALL DAY, EVERY DAY WITHOUT RESPITE FOR A YEAR FIVE YEARS,EvEN 10 YEARS. How LONG BEFORE YOU RESTLESS AND LONELY? HOW LONG BEFORE YOU START PACINCOND TALKING TO YOURSELF. HOW LONG BEFORE YOU LOSE YOUR MIND? For more than 300 inmates on Texas’ death row, these aren’t hypothetical questions. Their lives are confined to 60-square-foot cells in which they languish 23 hours a day, alone in a featureless room, behind a solid steel door, cut off not only from what they call “the free world,” but from nearly everyone. Inmates endure this isolation an average of 10 yearsthough some have been on death row more than 30until their appeals are exhausted and their sentences are commuted or carried out. Or until they’re killed by disease, old age or another inmate. Or until they kill themselves. Death row inmates are housed at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit near Livingston. They live in a “special segregation unit”a prison within a maximum-security prison. The cells have a small window at one end. The steel door has a narrow window and, at the bottom, a slit through which guards slide trays of food. Death row inmates can receive books and paper tablets for writing and drawing. Some have radios. Little penetrates these cement boxes except sound. Prison is a loud place, and sound can cause the most torment. The constant yelling and taunting and clanging doorswhat one inmate describes as “prison ruckus”never ceases. Occasionally there are dull thuds of beatings and the screams of nearby prisoners descending into madness. They are released from their cells 10 hours each weektwo hours a day for five of seven daysand shuttled into the recreation area, which is a larger cage. \(Two days a week, they remain in their cells exercise individually, though they can talk to an inmate in the neighboring recreation cage, one of their few opportunities for conversation. For the other 158 hours of the week and 8,216 hours of the year-94 percent of their livesinmates waste away THE TEXAS OBSERVER 1 7 a Many death-row cells have large burn marks. Setting fires is a pretty common means of getting the attention of a ranking officer. PHOTOS COURTESY TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE