What Happens When You Build a Town Around a Prison?
A scale model of the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas, that sits in the Texas Prison Museum. All photos by Logan Hickle


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What Happens When You Build a Town Around a Prison?

A tour of Huntsville, Texas, where penitentiaries serve as job creators, tourist attractions, and the center of the community.
April 6, 2015, 4:00am

Paula has stopped noticing the sirens. Every few hours, they sound from the sprawling Walls Unit at the center of town: one sharp, short bleat, followed 30 minutes later by a longer and deeper bellow hanging on the humid air. During her first few months in Huntsville, Texas, the sirens confused my younger sister as she walked to class or stood in line for cheese fries at Mr. Hamburger. No one in town could tell her what they meant. Some thought they marked the start of an execution. Others guessed they were police sirens, or maybe the horn of a passing train. Finally Paula called the prison to ask and was told the sirens signal the start and end of an inmate head count, a routine as unremarkable as the class bells that chime every hour from the high school across the street. Now that Paula's lived in Huntsville for almost a year she's used to the sirens, just as she's used to the old brick guard towers looming over the town and the floodlights brightening the night sky.


A feeling of ordinariness pervades Huntsville, where incarceration is a normal part of daily life. According to the website of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), Huntsville is home to seven prisons, more than 13,000 inmates, and the busiest execution chamber in the United States—the Huntsville Unit, nicknamed the Walls Unit, where more than 500 lethal injections have taken place since Texas reinstated the death penalty in 1982.

But Huntsville—aptly called the death-penalty capital of the world—is more charming than that description makes it out to be. People smile when Paula and I pass them on the narrow sidewalks, nodding or tipping their hats in greeting. For lunch, I am served fried pecan pie by a grinning, gray-haired waitress who calls me "ma'am" and compliments my dress and gives me an extra scoop of vanilla ice cream because, she winks, I'm obviously not from here, by which she means I am the only person in this café who is sweating, even though it's 100 degrees outside.

The town, which was founded in 1836, is one of those little burgs that trades heavily on its past. The main street is dotted with sweet little antique shops and cozy cafés where college students gaze out of windows, bent over homework. A brochure called "Historic Huntsville," which I picked up at the university's gift shop, lists the local attractions: Sam Houston Memorial Museum, Huntsville State Park, Historical Huntsville Ghost Tours, the courthouse, the Texas Prison Museum, and Main Street shopping.


There is no mention of the prisons or the inmates inside them, as if they occupied some other universe. Residents can't agree on how many incarceration facilities there are—some guess two or four, while others only know the Walls Unit because of its location downtown. When asked about the Walls on campus, a pair of freshmen blink in surprise. "I thought that was a university building," one says, and yeah, that makes sense: It's squat and redbrick, Texas's oldest prison, and would be sort of quaint if not for the sirens.

My sister, who went to college in Chicago and attended dubstep shows on the weekends, seems to have acclimated to all this. "Thank you, ma'am," she says when the waitress brings her a glass of sweet tea. In the booth next to us, three gray-uniformed corrections officers finish eating and wave goodbye, handcuffs swinging from their hips.

"It's a culture of honor here," Paula tells me. "You're supposed to respect people and act right toward them." She unwraps her straw and plunges it into her sweet tea. "But that makes the town's politics even stranger."

"People here don't really think about the prisons," her friend Chris adds between bites of pie. He's from Missouri; he and his wife moved to Huntsville so she could attend Sam Houston State's doctorate program in forensic psychology. They've been here one year, and Chris, an ex-banker, is still looking for a job. He might apply to be a corrections officer. The TDCJ has been headquartered in Huntsville since 1848, making it the town's largest and most lucrative employer. During my visit, residents repeat the local joke: "Half the population of Huntsville's under key, and the other half gets paid for their time."


I ask Chris how he feels about living in a prison town, and he shrugs. "Prison here is just a way of life," he says, digging in his pocket for money. He lays down a few bills and motions to the scene around us: booths emptying and filling, dishes being brought out and then swept away. "It's a revolving door."

I see his point. Every weekday morning, dozens of inmates are released from the Walls Unit, whooping and high-fiving as they stride along 12th Street to the Greyhound station in new, ill-fitting work clothes. I find some of them waiting in the shade, sipping their first beer in years from paper bags. "I been holding out eight years for this," laughs a short Hispanic man in his 30s, rolling a toothpick between his teeth. "Not even Satan hisself could drag me back."

Next to him, a lanky black man in a faded T-shirt and loose jeans stands squinting into the distance, eager for his first glimpse of the bus that will deliver him back to his family in Forth Worth. "I'll believe it when I see it," he says quietly, keeping his eyes trained on the road ahead.

For those without destinations, one option is to stay in Huntsville and try to scrape together part-time work working in the stockroom at Walmart, bussing tables at IHOP—or volunteer with some of the town's faith-based ministries. "So many of these guys don't have homes," says Bill Kleiber, executive director of Restorative Justice Ministries at the First Baptist Church in Huntsville. "These ministries are really their only family."


An ex-offender himself, Kleiber got involved with RJM shortly after his release on a coke charge 12 years ago, handing out clothes and Bibles at the Greyhound station. Today, RJM networks with more than 90,000 churches and ministries across the United States to aid ex-offenders and their families.

"I tell these guys I've served twelve years at that bus stop so I don't have to go back to the penitentiary," Kleiber says, his words echoing in the musty quiet of First Baptist. On the wall behind his desk, a statue of the Virgin Mary smiles sweetly down at us with her arms outstretched. "Working with convicts is a twenty-four-seven reminder of the man I used to be."

"Ole Sparky," the decommissioned electric chair that sits inside the Texas Prison Museum

If you're heading south from Huntsville on I-45, the Sam Houston statue towers into view beyond the trees, glowing white against a sharp blue sky. Paula slows the car and I inhale, awed by his size. The monument to the hero of the Texas Revolution and the founder of Huntsville stands 67 feet high; "A Tribute To Courage" is carved into the base. Paula rolls down the windows, and I crane my neck up to meet his stern, unblinking eyes.

The road we're on dips and curves alongside miles of lush woods, countless shades of green layered against thick white clouds. Trees huddle close together and block my sight. Beyond them, I know, are gas stations and fast-food restaurants and prisons; beyond that, there's the swampy Trinity River, where death-row escapee Martin Gurule was found drowned in 1998. As I squint out my window, I imagine Gurule fleeing into cool, safe darkness, his body stiff with the masking tape and cardboard he swaddled himself in in order to scale two barbed wire fences.


I ask Paula whether she's ever afraid here, and I feel surprised when she shakes her head no. "When I first got here, the town seemed run-down and kind of shady over by the prison," she tells me. "But there's so much law enforcement that I feel safe."

As we drive, I think back to when Paula moved to Huntsville nearly a year ago: her white knuckles gripping the steering wheel, the rearview mirror framing her face, now tan past the point of sunburn. Eventually she wants to be a psychologist in a maximum-security prison—"I like the mystery," she explains, simply, when asked why—and I wonder where her curiosity comes from, what drew her here from our Midwest suburb.

"Every time I walk past the prison, I turn and make a point to acknowledge it," she tells me as we drive. "I know a lot of people who try to avoid it."

Tourists, of course, come here to look, and to that end they often end up at the Texas Prison Museum, another squat, redbrick building just off I-45. Paula parks the car and we walk inside, where Jim Willett, director and former warden of the Walls, greets us. For a man who has presided over 89 executions, he's shorter and gentler than I'd expected, with clear blue eyes and a balding head ringed with white hair. Willett was warden during the death chamber's busiest three years (1998 to 2001), and he's happier now to be working for the museum. "I didn't like dealing with the executions and was really glad when that part was over," he confesses in his soft-spoken drawl.


Last year, he says, the museum had more than 30,000 visitors, from Texans who wanted to learn more about their own culture to Europeans curious about the death penalty. Ex-inmates sometimes drop in after being released, wanting one last look at what they're about to leave behind.

Willett guides me through some of his favorite exhibits: the pistol that Bonnie Parker had in her lap when she was killed; a scale model of a Walls cell, where visitors can pose for pictures; and, near the front, a few pieces of furniture crafted by inmates, available to the public for special order until the 1940s. The gift shop still sells items made by prisoners—leather wallets, purses, belt buckles, domino sets, beer koozies, and, for $3, tiny key chains shaped like handcuffs, with the museum's name and phone number etched into the side.

The gift shop also sells the sorts of souvenirs you can find at any attraction worth seeing in America: TDCJ patches, "Death Row" baseball caps, and T-shirts. "I Did Time In Huntsville!" an orange sleeve exclaims. Another design features "Ole Sparky"—the museum's pet name for the retired electric chair that sent 361 men to their deaths in Texas—and the phrase "Riding the Thunderbolt." Displayed most prominently is a pink T-shirt created by female inmates that features a group of cartoonish-looking women shackled to one another. A handwritten note boasts that the shirt was used as a prop in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.


Willett's eyes brighten as we approach the exhibit for the Texas Prison Rodeo. Running from 1931 to 1986, the "Wildest Show Behind Bars" was one of the most popular sporting events in the state for many years, drawing crowds of thousands to Huntsville every weekend in October. When not performing in the rodeo, inmates could spend their time sitting in booths, selling crafts and prizes for a small profit.

As the rodeo and the museum demonstrate, Huntsville has never been ashamed of its prisons; they're actually something of an asset. At Mr. Hamburger, you can choose from the Professor, Warden, or Killer burger. Mock escapes are often staged at prisons on the edge of town, and the Chamber of Commerce even used "Escape to Huntsville" as its tourism slogan before scrapping it in the 90s.

"Personally, I think we need a little lightheartedness, the same as we need it in prison. I've even seen it in the death chamber." –Jim Willett

I ask Willett what he thinks of Huntsville's sense of humor. "Personally, I think we need a little lightheartedness," he says, "the same as we need it in prison. I've even seen it in the death chamber."

I see his point after encountering some of the museum's more gruesome exhibits: tubing and straps from lethal injections; contraband like shanks, monkey knots, and arm blades; a three-foot-long leather switch once used to punish inmates. In the middle of the museum, Ole Sparky looms in a replica death chamber. Nearby is a photo of Captain Joe Byrd, who started pulling the switch in 1936. "He was as tough as they came, but was loved because of his compassion," reads the accompanying caption.


A group of tourists form a circle around Ole Sparky, murmuring to one another and snapping photos. Willett and I watch in silence until I have to turn away.

"You'd be surprised how many people have asked if they can have their photo taken in that chair," he says. I wrinkle my nose, and he chuckles: "The people here—it's just not part of their lives."

When I ask why not, Willett says, "Maybe they're afraid to think about it."

"Do you think about it?" I blurt out, nervously.

He pauses, and when he speaks again his soft voice is even softer. "Sometimes I wonder if what we did was right," he admits.

Has he changed his mind about the death penalty?

"No." Willett shakes his head hard. "It was a job. I did it the best I could."

A display of items related to the Texas Prison Rodeo in the Texas Prison Museum

Bo, a corrections officer at Eastham Unit, on the edge of town, is the type of man who makes me skittish, an amalgam of every Texas-prison-guard stereotype rattling around my head: I am immediately nervous when I spot him getting out of his truck, tall and solid in cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat. He cups my hands in his sun-spotted ones, fixing me with a searching, blue-eyed stare.

"How'd you do, ma'am," he says, so gently I have to lean in to hear him. We take a table near the back of the Starbucks, and Bo asks whether he can sit facing the door: "Just makin' sure there's no threat," he explains, settling slowly into his chair. With so many inmates in town, he's always on duty—glancing around, watching his back. Ready.


He asks me what I want to talk about, and I riffle through my notes, suddenly at a loss. I feel out of my element here: a young graduate student from Iowa, where the biggest threats are floods and tornadoes, or those petty crimes of college towns—"Found a cooked pig, apple and all, sitting outside the door," a recent entry in our police log reports. In front of me is a notebook full of questions, but none of them ask what I am embarrassed to ask, what I really want to know: What's it like living with all that fear?

Bo speaks mostly in anecdotes and stories—conniving inmates, dirty bosses, prison fights. He tells me about drug bribes and gang wars, about homemade shanks and crack pipes. He tells me about his own anger problems growing up, about foster homes and juvenile detention, about his reputation as a young hotheaded bouncer in Houston before signing on at the prison. He tells me about being surrounded in the Walls yard one day by a group of inmates looking to fight, about the 30 men from his dorm who came to his defense with smuggled weapons.

"They know I am a decent man. A man of his word," Bo tells me, his eyes bright with pride as I write in my notebook. It is important to him that I know this. It is important to him that his story has a moral.

Bo wants to make it clear he's not doing this job for the reasons most people are. He didn't sign up for the steady benefits or health insurance, or even the $2,400 monthly paychecks that attract the college kids he works with. "I call them my family in gray," a student and part-time CO told me, when I asked why he took the job. Another said she enrolled for the $4,000 sign-up bonus, needing fast cash for her spring break trip to Hawaii: "With all the raises and promotions, it's probably the best paying job in town."


But Bo is different. He takes the job seriously: "I don't socialize," he scoffs. "I walk, and I look." He tips back his coffee for a long gulp. "People quit all the time because they can't hack it. But there's a whole lotta knowledge in this ole brain," he winks, tapping his fingers proudly to his forehead. "You gotta stay smart and keep your honor."

Bo gets up to use the bathroom, refastening his gaze on the front door when he returns. I ask whether he sees many ex-inmates in town.

"Sitting near us, you can never know." He lowers his voice, his eyes sliding around the room. "When I recognize guys at the grocery store or whatever I just nod at 'em, make sure I show 'em respect." Bo's caution is best summed up by another one of his stories: A female CO pissed off a powerful inmate in her block. Two days later, the prisoner handed her a manila folder. Inside were pictures of the CO's husband mowing their lawn.

But Bo claims he doesn't take his work home with him. "When I walk out that gate," he says, gesturing to the Starbucks doors, "it's behind me."

We shake hands in the parking lot. One last glance over his shoulder and he climbs back into his truck, his blue eyes stuck in the rearview mirror as he drives away.

Bats in the sky above the Walls Unit

In bed later, I dream. Shards of Bo's stories. Knives, break-ins. A gun held to my throat. I wake every couple of hours, wide-eyed and clammy, my ears pricked for footsteps, but hear only the clicks and whirrs of insects outside my hotel window. I'd planned to stay the week at Paula's apartment, but after a wasp sting and a severe allergic reaction to her new kitten I found myself holed up in a dim room at the La Quinta, an ice pack strapped to my foot and another pressed to my bloated right eye. My mother grudgingly agreed to pick up the tab after an argument about money—I didn't have any, but still I refused to stay at the cheaper Motel 6 on the grounds that Huntsville is a prison town and therefore, I reasoned, unsafe, although I had no evidence for this.

Am I reacting like this because I'm an outsider in zip codes I don't quite understand? Or is that faint tingle of gut-level dread simply indigenous to Huntsville? "There is a pervasive sense of fear on the church committee that I work with," says Reverend Cheryl Smith, of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church. "Maybe in the face of heinous crimes people need to feel like they're in control. You know, writing the universe again after it's been thrown out of balance."


We're eating dinner at a Mexican restaurant across the street from the Walls, Paula and Smith and I, splitting a bowl of chips and salsa while inmates play basketball in the recreation yard nearby, breaking into hoots and hisses whenever someone scores. For a minute it's easy to forget these men live in a different world, but soon the sirens will sound and they'll return to their cells for count, silence falling over downtown as half of Huntsville's population is locked back inside.

Smith points out the window, to 12th Street, which runs in front of the prison. Every few weeks, a group of committed residents—professors and students, mostly—gather here to protest the day's scheduled execution, updated weekly on the TDCJ's website. "It's part of my witness," she says, "to be present."

"I don't know why more people don't protest… Maybe it's just too hard." –Reverend Cheryl Smith

Smith has only lived in Huntsville for three years—Methodist ministers are moved around from place to place by the church—but that's long enough for her to know that she needs to be in front of the prison. "I don't know why more people don't protest," she tells me. A former teacher and psychotherapist, Smith speaks with slow consideration, holding my gaze intently. "Maybe it's just too hard. Maybe it's because I'm the new kid on the block that I'm not worn down by it yet."

During executions, Smith likes to stand slightly apart from the other spectators, cupping a lit candle and praying silently. High-profile cases will sometimes draw bigger and rowdier crowds like the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, a small activist group from Houston that Smith describes as being "very in-your-face." (None of the group's members agreed to speak with me.)

"There's no anti-death-penalty group in Huntsville—now what does that tell you?"

Shaking her head, Smith pauses for a bite of her fish taco. "I cried like a baby after my first protest," she admits, turning to look out the window at the Walls, coils of barbed wire gleaming in the early evening sun. "It's a horror story to me."

"That's why I don't protest," says Paula, who has been silent until now. Looking up from her bowl of tortilla soup, she describes going to her first protest a week after arriving in town: how shocked she was by the small turnout, how upset she felt when her new friends—all graduate students in psychology—wanted to leave and go out for dinner. "I cried all night," she confesses, a tiny blush rising in her cheeks. "When I saw only ten people standing there I felt humiliated, like no one cared about the same things I do."

Smith writes her phone number on a napkin and slides it across the table to Paula. "Now you can stand with me," she says. We pay our bill, hug goodbye in the parking lot. Tomorrow I'm heading back to Iowa, but before I go Smith tells me to visit the old prison warehouse adjacent to the Walls, where every night at dusk thousands of bats burst free from the broken windows and take flight over downtown.

Paula leaves her car, and we head in the direction of the Walls, walking quickly along the empty sidewalks. We are the only ones out, and I feel my muscles tense in the humid air, my heart thudding as we pass rows of little ranch houses with families inside, huddled around dinner tables or flopped over couches, watching TV. All week I've questioned residents' complacency about the prison—tried to break inside their silences—but now I wonder whether this is why we build walls: to guard ourselves, put distance between our pains and humiliations and fears.

It's nearly sundown. Paula and I take a seat on a curb outside the Walls, watching the giant clock above the prison and waiting for the bats. I can smell them from here—their sour, musty bodies stirring in the shadows. I'm startled when the front doors of the prison swing open and three white teenagers step out, walking with heads bent, hands buried in jean pockets. The boys cross the deserted street, my breath quickening when they stop in front of us.

"Are you guys here for the bats, too?" one asks, looking at Paula and me with suspicion. I answer yes, and the five of us break into nervous laughter. Deep in the empty warehouse, I hear wings rustling. It's almost time. Together we look up into the dark sky and wait for them to become visible.