When I started my Masters degree in Criminal Justice and Criminology at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, in August, 2015, I started my first semester with the course Corrections. Being born and raised in the Netherlands, I was very interested in learning more about the corrections system in the United States due to the large differences with the Netherlands. When our class got offered a tour in the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas, I was very intrigued, in particular because it is the Texas state prison that houses the execution chamber. In fact, not just any execution chamber, but the most active execution chamber in the United States – with a current count of 566 executions. The execution chamber is not open to the general public, so being offered this opportunity was quite an experience.
The Walls Unit, mostly known for its execution chamber, additionally houses 1270 inmates. This does not include death row inmates; male death row inmates stay in the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas. The Walls Unit is one of the regional release centers for male inmates, which means that they may stay in this unit for the final portions of their sentences before being released. Interestingly, the release of inmates is a frequent occurrence in Huntsville and anyone who has ever been at the Greyhound bus station is likely to have seen the inmates waiting for the bus with their belongings, consisting of one trashcan bag.
When I entered the unit and noticed the inmates, handcuffed and in prison jumpsuits, I knew it was going to be unlike any other prison I had ever seen in the Netherlands. The tour guide, who was one of the guards in the Walls Unit, started the tour by showing us some regular cells and telling us stories about famous inmates and a prison cell that is supposed to be haunted. We continued our tour to the visitors’ room and the yard, when we finally made it to the last and most important stop: the execution chamber.
When I entered the execution chamber, that barely fit the small group of people I was with, I noticed the small size of the room. The room was way smaller than I expected, as it is only 9- by 12-foot (2.7m x 3.7m). The green colored walls looked way brighter in person and seemed out of place. The room felt daunting and gave a glimpse of the fear and the emotions experienced in the execution chamber. Our tour guide was – somewhat proudly – explaining the details and giving a timeline of the procedure. The death row inmate who is scheduled to be executed, is transported from the Polunsky Unit in Livingston to the Walls Unit early in the afternoon on the day of the execution. The death row inmate is then locked in a cell – only a short walk away from the execution chamber – until it is time for the execution that is scheduled after 6:00 pm. Although it is a common assumption that death row inmates get to choose their last meal, this is not the case in the state of Texas. After an expansive last meal request in 2011 from a death row inmate who eventually refused to eat it, authorities withdrew this “privilege”. As a result, the inmate will have to eat whatever is being served on that day. When the time has come, the inmate is allowed to make a last statement before the execution will be carried out by prison staff members. The family of the victim and the family of the death row inmate are allowed to witness the execution in separate rooms through the glass. While the tour guide continued, I couldn’t stop my thoughts from wandering. How many people had died in that chamber? What were their last words? And their last thoughts? How does it feel knowing the people on the other side of the glass can see you die, knowing most of them want to see you die? And how many innocent people had died in this chamber?
Although I had been an opponent of the death penalty from a young age, it always seemed like something distant. After visiting the execution chamber, I started to realized that the execution chamber in the Walls unit is the final destination for hundreds of people. People with families, people with parents, people with children. People with stories that often remains unheard of. A week later, we discussed our experiences in our next class. While all of us came from different backgrounds, countries and cultures, we all agreed that dying in the execution chamber is the most inhumane punishment there is. It is unimaginable what the human beings – because in the end, that is what they are – have to go through when they enter that chamber and no one – innocent or not – deserves to die like that.