A look inside the Polunksy super-maximum security prison, Texas – where 300 prisoners sit on Death Row 

By Victoria Egerton @VictoriaEgerto2

I was nervous when I first visited clients on death row. After a four hour car journey from Austin to Livingston, I was confronted with a sign at the entrance to the prison. It explained that hostages will not be permitted beyond this point. If this wasn’t enough to create a level of anxiety, the cold eerie atmosphere was.

Notorious for its reputation, Polunsky is a super-maximum security prison in Texas and home to around 300 death row prisoners. To be convicted of capital murder in Texas a defendant must be found guilty of murder under special circumstances, such as being in the process of committing a felony, killing a police officer, having committed multiple murders or have been found to have killed an elderly person or a child. They must also be considered as a future danger to society.  

During my time as an intern in Texas, I have visited a number of clients on death row. I am here because I believe in due process and the right to a fair trial, which is too often denied to indigent defendants. 

I have heard so many people say that they had a difficult childhood but they did not commit murder. Our life experiences cannot be identical and every person is different, but we are all products of society. Our social connections, experiences and support networks (or a lack thereof), contribute to the people we become and mould our future. A high proportion of these clients have been subjected to a life history of abuse and torment. Unfortunately this is something the jury does not always hear.

I am not seeking to justify any of the horrific crimes that those clients may, or may not have committed. By no means do life experiences justify murder, but they do offer circumstantial explanations of behaviour. I agree with Justice Brennan that even the vilest criminal remains a human-being possessed of common dignity. There is a systematic problem, the components of which are racial prejudice, ineffective assistance of counsel and media bias.  

A Prison Housed within a Prison  

There are only a small number of items that are permitted to be taken into Polunsky. A pen and paper, a clear bag of quarters for the vending machine, and ID. Paper money, food and water are considered contraband. Going through security is intense.

I clutched my bag of quarters and walked across the prison yard into the visitation area. Usually we arrive around 10am and leave at 5pm. I was so interested and engrossed in conversations with clients that I even forgot to drink water. On each visit I lose track of time and hours feel like minutes. I was not nervous for long.

I sat waiting for a client to be escorted to the visitation area. I was waiting for over an hour until he was eventually bundled into box-like room which was guarded with thick glass, his hands were cuffed behind his back. The guard unlocked his handcuffs once the box was secured. He sat in beige rags with handcuff imprints on his wrists.

Picture: Death Row Cell from the Old State Penitentiary in Boise, Idaho.

The visitation boxes are slightly separated; one side is for social visits and the other legal. The boxes contain a chair and a phone. They are so small, I have seen bigger kennels. The phones crackle making it difficult to communicate and there is no privacy, even for legal visits. Imagine how difficult it is to gain your client’s trust in this setting? Especially when the legal system may have failed them so many times before.

Death row is a prison housed within a prison. Inmates are placed in the harshest conditions of solitary confinement for around 23 hours a day in a 6 by 10 ft concrete cell. They are completely ostracised from human contact. Their cells have heavy doors to make communication extremely difficult and are equipped with only a small bed, a sink and a toilet. Their food is served through a hatch, a process similar to feeding animals at a zoo. Conditions are horrendous.

Death row prisoners are permitted one family visit per week but often legal visits are the only human interaction they receive as many families cannot afford to travel to visits. Prisoners are given an hour to exercise alone in a cage but before they leave and on returning to their cell they are subjected to a strip search. The search is conducted in front of other prisoners, causing some to refuse recreation and spend almost 24 hours in solitary. Polunsky is on lockdown at least twice a year for around 14 days. A “shakedown” of each cell is conducted and prison cells are completely ransacked. Each step is a process of dehumanisation.

Solitary Confinement Strips Prisoners of both Humanity and Sanity

Prisoners are people, people that have human rights and deserve human-dignity. Solitary confinement breeds mental health problems through sensory deprivation and limiting human contact. It can cause anxiety, depression and psychotic symptoms including auditory and visual hallucinations. 

Those predisposed to mental health problems are the most at risk. One Death Row prisoner, Andre Thomas from Grayson County, gouged out his own eye before his trial. Whilst on death row he removed his second eye and ate it. He was adamant that the government had stolen his first eye. How could he be found mentally competent to stand trial?

Recently the Fair Punishment Project estimated that 40% of death row prisoners spent more than 20 years in solitary confinement. On 7th March 2017, the Supreme Court denied a stay of execution for Rolando Ruiz. He spent 20 continuous years on death row, had two eleventh-hour stays and a total of four execution dates. Justice Breyer dissented stating that lengthy incarceration in traumatic conditions can breach the 8th Amendment, the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. This concern is echoed by the UN and in the infamous case Soering v UK (1989) the European Convention on Human Rights found that awaiting execution of capital punishment exposes people to a “real risk of treatment beyond the threshold of Article 3”, the prohibition of torture and inhuman degrading treatment.

In Furman v Georgia (1972) the US Supreme Court declared capital punishment to be arbitrary and therefore cruel and unusual. After Atkins v Virginia and Roper v Simmons it became unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile or a person who was intellectually disabled to death. However, the Texas legislature did not enact statutory provisions to define intellectual disability. Uncertainty causes arbitrariness.

Death row in Texas is made up of a disproportionate amount of African American men. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice 26.7% are white, 44.2% are black, 27.1% are hispanic and 2.1% are another race. A black person is four and a half times more likely to be given a death sentence than a white person in a similar case. 

Duane Buck is an African American man. His attorney appointed an expert that testified that black people are “inherently more dangerous” and he was tried by an all-white jury. Buck was recently awarded a new sentencing hearing by the Supreme Court. It is astonishing that Buck had to go so far through the judicial process to be offered relief.

Executions in Texas are administered by lethal injection using the drug Pentobarbital. They are driven to Huntsville, around 3 hours away from Austin, and executions usually take place after a non-contact family visit around 6pm. Witnesses can watch executions. Huntsville neighbours a museum on the history of the death penalty where you can sit in an electric chair and a burger joint naming it’s burgers after executions. You can order a “Mr Sparky” facing Huntsville.

In the USA 7.12% of executions that were administered by lethal injection were botched, resulting in agonising pain before death. Pharmaceutical manufacturers are making it extremely difficult for prisons to obtain the drugs used to administer lethal injections.

The death penalty does not only amount to torture and inhuman degrading treatment and it allows for gross failures and injustice with a consequence of death. Neither is the death penalty effective. Since 1973 there have been 157 death row exonerations in the USA and in Texas a death penalty case costs an average of $2.3 million, around three times the cost of imprisonment for 40 years.

A number of death row prisoners have been able to find inner strength and have taught themselves to read and write, reflect and show remorse. I do not see the monsters that the media would have you see. They look out for one another, a sense of community is created. Imagine the effect that rehabilitation could have if we offered support programmes, counselling and education rather than torturous solitary confinement.