With some help from TDCJ CFO Jerry McGinty, LEAP Center students and guests went behind bars on Thursday, touring the Huntsville Unit (aka Walls Unit). The guest list included attorneys Audrey Biggar and Jeremy Romoser, City staff Marla Diers, SHSU Staff Deanna Briones and Renee Starns, and retired teacher Leanne Woodward.
The extensive tour included the historic part of the Walls Unit, where Clyde Barrow and Chief Satanta once served time, and the solitary confinement cell of John Wesley Hardin–who spent two years in solitary. It also included the holding cell for the death chamber, as well as the death chamber itself, by far the most sobering part of the tour.
The execution chamber is a small room, painted green, with a gurney located in the center. The gurney has numerous straps to hold down the inmate in his final minutes, and only three individuals are permitted in the room: the condemned inmate, the warden, and the chaplain. Invited guests witness the execution from viewing rooms. The execution has a live feed, but no recording equipment.
Also of interest was the textile mill, supervised by James Langley, who gave us a tour of its many-faceted operations. We saw how inmates made cotton for the uniforms; material for the mops, used at units across the state; and even the material used in mattresses for the inmates (and sold to Universities for dorm bedding!).
Finally, we concluded the tour with a walk-through of the chapel, the cell block, and a Q & A period following the tour. Perhaps most interesting is the sheer magnitude and diversity of running the prison system. While most people realize this involves guarding and housing inmates, few people probably realize that there more than 100 units across Texas; or that TDCJ owns some 1,600 horses; or that TDCJ farms produce millions of eggs; or that TDCJ is left to bury some 100 inmates annually, inmates who either don’t have families or whose families don’t have the means or desire to provide a burial themselves.
It’s a daunting enterprise. But the enterprise was explained coherently and, at appropriate times, even entertainingly by Warden Jones, CFO McGinty, and Officer Langley.
While TDCJ tours are not available to the general public, much of TDCJ’s history and artifacts can be viewed at the Texas Prison Museum on HWY 75N.