Today was my first and only visit to the Polunsky Unit to visit inmates who are on death row. Scratched into the walls of booth 2A, an unknown inmate had carved a poem:
Your God is dead
And no one cares
If there is a hell
I’ll see you there
Before today I was intrigued by
We entered through security and awaited the arrival of one client who has always had a very difficult relationship with any attorney working on his case. A prison guard arrived to tell us that he had refused to see anyone on his legal team. I explained that I was an international intern and was not actually one of his attorneys. This did little to encourage his attention and he refused once again. This was disappointing, as we had hoped that having two international interns might encourage him to sign releases needed by his Writ lawyers who have no access to his trial files. He did not want to see anyone.
Instead, my supervisor, another intern and myself divided our time between three other clients. Each client was very different and had a unique story that led to their incarceration and death sentence. What they all had in common was a willingness to speak to someone who would listen. We spent five hours there and covered a lot of ground - from the Twilight novels, to the Olympics, to the Russians supplying
One of our clients has been on death row for less than a year. On his arrival he was placed in A-pod. He was the only man in his block without an execution date. After intervention from his lawyer, he was moved to the appropriate pod. He described the kindness of other inmates on his arrival. They provided him with underwear, a cup for a drink and a spoon to eat his dinner. Another client was just 25 years old and had a shockingly poor defence team at trial. His appeal was just recently affirmed. He was very friendly and asked a lot of questions about Europe. There are also some serious questions relating to his guilt. The possibility that he might be innocent is altogether terrifying.
Just standing within the walls of Polunsky, the overwhelming feeling is one of inescapable powerlessness. This is the last stage in a long process and it is difficult not to feel weighed down by the impending doom. When I visit pre-trial clients in the jail I usually have a purpose. There is some information that I have to find out, or a query that needs answering. Today, we were just there to check in; reminding the clients that there are people out there thinking about them and working on their appeals, in an attempt to save them from the death chamber. The clients talked and talked because they didn’t want to go back to their cell. We were just there to have a chat.
I am fairly certain that the distraction was appreciated by the clients. However, when we left, it felt horribly passive and as though, in some way, we were complicit in the process. Like all my experiences here, I know, after time and more visits, it would become normalised and not have such an impact. As a first time visitor I feel okay with being ‘affected’, disgusted and saddened by death row and all the oppression that it represents.
To say it is ‘just sad’ is to underplay the horror that death row contains. At the same time, there aren’t really words to adequately describe the isolation that these clients are facing. They will never touch another human being again. They are strip searched every time they leave their cell, or the shower, or come to a visit, or return from a visit. When an execution date is set, the inmates are sent to A-pod where they are placed in cells fitted with cameras to make sure they don’t try and kill themselves before their execution. ‘Justice’ will be served and the law requires that the State is the one to serve it. And all this, before they are strapped to the gurney.
“I can assure you... there’s not one zoo or dog kennel in these
This final quote is from a client I met today, he granted permission to use it in this post.
Blog by Aine Kervick, intern at the Amicus Houston office
12 July 2012