Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire
There’s tough. And then there’s Texas tough.
—Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst
If we are to fully understand the causes and consequences of America’s prison buildup, a good place to start is Huntsville, Texas. Although dozens of prison-dominated communities now dot the American landscape from Florence, Arizona, to Wallens Ridge, Virginia, Huntsville stands above the rest: It is the most locked-down town in the most prison-friendly state in the most incarcerated country in the world. Although America’s sprawling penal system—a collection of some five thousand federal and state prisons, not to mention local jails—is highly decentralized, Huntsville, perhaps even more than Washington, D.C., could stake a claim to serve as its capital city. For 160 years, it has coordinated criminal punishment for the Lone Star State and in the last half century, it has stood at the forefront of a carceral revolution that has remade American society and governance.
A sleepy town surrounded by pine forests and tumbledown farms, seventy miles north of Houston, Huntsville was selected in 1848 to build the state’s first residential institution, a penitentiary. Ever since, the community’s fortunes have depended on crime and punishment; as Texas’s prison system grew, so did Huntsville. “We sort of live within the shadows of the Walls,” comments Jim Willett, a longtime resident and former warden. “Three times a day we hear the ‘all clear’ count whistle. When you think about it, it marks the passing of our days.”
Today more than ever, imprisonment is Huntsville’s lifeblood. Nearly half of the town’s residents (16,227 out of 35,567) live behind bars. Some 7,500 adults earn their paychecks keeping them there. Each morning, thousands of guards in ill-fitting gray uniforms pile into pickups and head to one of the area’s nine prisons, while starched administrators drive to one of the offices that make up the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) headquarters. From their cubicles they oversee the largest state prison system in the United States, one that incarcerates more people than Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined. “We’ve grown so massive, we need a building like the Pentagon,” remarks a harried TDCJ bureaucrat.
At first glance, Huntsville looks like any other small southern city. National chains dominate the two main highway exits. In prosperous neighborhoods, spacious homes line up behind tidy lawns along wide, oak-draped streets. In the poorest sections, weather-worn shotgun houses share overgrown lots with rusting trailers. Although Huntsville has a college, Sam Houston State University, churches outnumber bars and hunting shops outnumber cinemas. A well-kept central plaza features a new limestone court house, but downtown merchants have fallen on hard times since Wal-Mart began siphoning retail dollars to the outskirts. Roger’s Shoes and Ernst Jewelers cling to life behind historic storefronts, but out of habit more than profit. Like most American towns, Huntsville is increasingly governed by the economics of scale and the geography of parking.
What sets Huntsville apart is the prison business. Just a stone’s throw from the plaza rises the town’s most impressive and imposing building, a redbrick fortress known as “the Walls,” Texas’s flagship penitentiary. Surrounded by twenty-five-foot fortifications, the Walls complex contains a small town in its own right: office space, kitchen facilities, an auto shop, massive classrooms, a chapel, an infirmary, and, most famously, the busiest death house in the nation. Some of the structures are twenty-first-century vintage, others nineteenth. “Working at the Walls you have a special sense of history,” says Willett, a heavyset man with droopy eyes who served as warden for four years. Some longtime residents claim the prison has been locking up and executing offenders for so long that restless ghosts prowl its dusty tiers.
The Walls is Huntsville’s icon, but rival landmarks abound. Just beyond the prison’s eastern gun towers, a crumbling stadium recalls the “world’s toughest rodeo,” a gladiatorial convict spectacular that served as one of Texas’s main tourist attractions between 1931 and 1986. A short walk down the road sits an army surplus store, formerly named Bustin’ Loose Mens Wear, the first stop for roughly two hundred prisoners released daily. Adjacent to the Greyhound station, where ex-cons exchange vouchers for one-way tickets to Dallas or Houston, the shop buys used prison-issue boots for two dollars and proudly announces, “TDCJ discharge checks cashed for free.” Many prisoners spend their entire fifty-dollar allotment before they leave town.
For less fortunate inmates who are discharged in boxes rather than boots, the final destination is often a somber expanse of lawn spread out behind the prison’s back gate: Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery. With spare concrete crosses forming gridlines across the grass—like Arlington without the honor—the graveyard has marked the end of the line for forsaken convicts for as long as anyone can remember. In the older sections, weather-beaten headstones are sinking into the soil, many of them identified only by a prison number, some marked with an X for execution. Along the edge, a row of fresh pits covered by metal plates await another round of indigents. Resting against one headstone, a faded display of blue plastic flowers spells out “DAD.”
Drive in any direction from the Walls and you will soon run into other TDCJ institutions: a massive transfer facility that brings new inmates into the system, a gleaming supermax that points toward Texas’s high-tech future, or an expansive prison plantation that gestures toward its past.
Residents of Huntsville are conscious, even proud of their prison history. In 1989, a local foundation opened the Texas Prison Museum, a squat redbrick building made to resemble a prison, wedged between two real prisons on the north side of town. Jim Willett, whose gentle manner and nasal voice are hard to reconcile with his long career as a warden, serves as the museum’s director. Four days a week, he works the front desk, hawking bobble-head convict dolls and sharing escape and riot stories with oldtimers who drop by in the afternoons. Although the museum’s exhibit room features humdrum poster-board displays, visitors take their time. They inspect faded striped uniforms, rusted cane knives, and a thick leather strap known as “the Bat.” Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde fame, the state’s most notorious escapee, and Fred Carrasco, its most infamous hostage taker, have special prominence, as does the prison system’s epic civil rights lawsuit, Ruiz v. Estelle, in which Texas prisons were declared “cruel and unusual” by a federal judge in 1980. What holds visitors’ gaze the longest, however, is a sturdy, stiff-backed, generously proportioned oak armchair with leather restraints and a metal headband. This is Old Sparky, the electric chair that Texas officials used to cut short 361 lives between 1924 and 1964.
Most visitors don’t realize that Willett himself supervised eighty-nine executions—albeit standing over a gurney rather than a chair—more than any other living American. If they stop to ask, he’ll say that executions were the most unpleasant part of his job. “I guess I haven’t fully made up my mind about the death penalty,” he said shortly after we first met, an honest but jarring remark from a man who used to carry it out, sometimes two or three times a week. Having read through grisly case briefings prepared by the Texas attorney general, Willett is convinced that most of the men and women he watched die earned their fate. But as a Christian, he isn’t sure it was his due to seal it.
Huntsville packs its prison memories, both flattering and unsettling, into this modest, sun-baked museum, but history spills beyond it. To outsiders, the town can feel like a living theme park, a grittier version of Colonial Williamsburg. The stately homes of top TDCJ administrators are tended by convict “yard boys” with outdoor trusty status. When I stopped to ask for directions on one of my first visits, a portly African American trusty quickly reminded me that deferential etiquette still rules. Dropping his rake, he hoofed it over to my rental, hat in hand, and asked, “Yes sir, what can I do for you, boss?” Up the road at the gate to the Wynne Farm, Texas’s oldest prison plantation, I watched as a squad of convict cotton pickers, almost all of them black, marched out to the fields, their duck-cloth coveralls gleaming in the early morning light. Trailing them on horse back was a white overseer, a 30-30 jostling in his scabbard.
Southern justice brings southern history close to the surface in Huntsville, lending credence to William Faulkner’s oft-cited observation that in the South, “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.” Yet Huntsville isn’t trapped looking backward. Thanks overwhelmingly to the state’s breakneck prison buildup, it’s racing into the future. Since 1980, the local prison workforce has more than qua drupled, and although prison jobs are low paying, new strip malls, highway interchanges, and pre-fab apartment complexes all attest to economic growth. As Forbes magazine observes, Huntsville is a “town where crime pays.”
To a remarkable extent, this unassuming backwoods community has become a crossroads. Thousands of law enforcement and corrections officers cycle through each year for training, while inmates, by the tens of thousands, arrive for intake or discharge. From TDCJ’s headquarters across the street from the Walls, administrators manage a $2.4 billion annual corrections bud get. They supervise a free-world workforce of almost 40,000 and manage 114 separate state prison facilities. Most significantly, they govern the lives of 169,000 prisoners and 650,000 parolees and probationers, greater than the population of Texas’s booming capital, Austin.
With the command of a punishment colossus that stretches from the Gulf Coast to the Llano Estacado, from the Rio Grande to the Panhandle, Huntsville is unique but also emblematic. It represents the ultimate product of the country’s punitive political turn, the distillation of a punishment paroxysm that has grimly redefined American exceptionalism for a new century. Standing, as it does, at the center of a prison empire, Huntsville is not just a prison town but a new sort of American everytown.
“What the Hell Happened?”
Most Texans believe that their state’s vast network of prisons was constructed to corral dangerous men, to keep “baby killers and murderers” off the streets. A bloody kernel of truth underlies this sentiment: Texas is dangerous terrain. Although the state’s crime rate has fallen sharply since the late 1980s, it remains about 20 percent higher than the national average. When it comes to murder—regarded by criminologists as the most accurate index of lawbreaking since almost all homicides come to the attention of police—Texas fares somewhat better, exceeding the national average by just 11 percent. But in Texas’s largest cities, killing proceeds with dismaying regularity. In Dallas, which has a higher overall crime rate than any other major U.S. city, the murder rate hovers 267 percent above the national average. Despite the fact that Dallas annually ships off nearly nine thousand young felons to prison, its roughest neighborhoods remain so dangerous that building contractors have written them off as no-go zones.
Violence is hardly new to Texas. The state’s most exalted heroes are martyrs or killers, usually both. Although the state missed out on the worst carnage of the Civil War, it has been playing catch-up ever since. Over the decades, Texas has witnessed terror attacks by the Ku Klux Klan, unrelenting campaigns against Indians, raids and counter-raids along the Mexican border, as well as individual violence aplenty. During Reconstruction, one of the state’s first serial killers, John Wesley Hardin, reportedly murdered more than twenty men—most of them “impudent negroes” and “Yankee soldiers”—before being locked up at the Walls.
Over the course of the twentieth century, tempers mellowed but only just. While many Americans remember the 1960s for the Summer of Love, Texans have to look back to John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas and Charles Whitman’s shooting spree from the University of Texas clock tower, a stunt that inaugurated the all-American tradition of the mass school shooting. “Homicide in Texas has a long history,” begins a chronology of notable murders published in the Texas Monthly ‘s special crime issue. “From the slaying of La Salle  to the killing of Madalyn Murray O’Hair , we present a crash course in murder and mayhem.”
Even now, Texas atrocities make the news with dismaying regularity. Since 1990, the state has played host to a mass killing at Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen, an eyeball-excising serial killer in Dallas, the Branch Davidian conflagration in Waco, a shooting rampage at the Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, and a multiple-child drowning in Houston. There was the case of John King, an ex-con and white-supremacist gang member, who together with two pals, abducted an African American man, chained him to the back of a truck, and dragged him to death along country roads, as well as that of Karla Faye Tucker, who murdered a young couple with a pickax and then became an international cause célèbre after her jail house conversion to Christianity.
Most of the prisoners I have come to know are serving long sentences for relatively pedestrian offenses—drug dealing, assault, and robbery—but a few of their rap sheets make even a jaded researcher wince. One fellow, a self-described “white country boy” who used to work as a hospital clerk, reportedly gunned down his father, stepmother, and stepbrother and then scattered hair and cigarette butts he had collected from black patients so as to pin the crime on “drug-crazed niggers.” One of my most faithful correspondents told me he had killed a 7-11 clerk back in 1971. It wasn’t until I rifled through old newspaper clippings that I learned he had also shot two schoolchildren and an eighty-six-year-old woman. Every state has its heinous criminals, of course, but Texas and other southern states—for a variety of historical, social, and cultural reasons—have more. Due largely to the legacy of slavery and its violent “code of honor,” argues Roger Lane, who has written extensively on the history of murder, “the South has led all sectors in violent behavior.” For “generations after the Civil War,” the states of the former Confederacy, sometimes joined by the frontier West, have served as “well-springs of American homicide.”
When lawmakers extend sentences or cut services for prisoners, they tend to think of criminals like these, “monsters” like Kenneth McDuff, who abducted and murdered women across Central Texas. Such “predators” have had a pronounced effect on public policy, but they do not accurately stand for the whole. They stalk our imaginations, but they don’t fill many of our prison beds. Of the roughly 169,000 persons confined in Texas prisons, some 90,000 of them are classified as nonviolent. This means that a majority have been sentenced for crimes that neither threatened nor caused bodily harm. Counterintuitively, it is this group, mainly due to the war on drugs, that has contributed most to the growth of imprisonment in Texas and the United States generally. Between 1985 and 1995, the incarceration rate for violent offenders increased by 86 percent, but the nonviolent rate soared by 478 percent.
Ironically, imprisonment rates have grown most aggressively among the groups we traditionally think of as most redeemable: low-level substance abusers, women, and juveniles. In Texas, 67 percent of all new inmates are sent to prison for nonviolent property or drug offenses. One of every three “catches the chain,” as inmates call the trip to TDCJ, not after being convicted of a new crime but for technical parole violation—infractions that might include failing a marijuana test or changing jobs without notifying a parole officer. “I saw probably more than ten thousand inmates a year who didn’t belong in prison,” says Richard Watkins, one of Texas’s first African American wardens and former chief of a large intake unit in Huntsville. “Most of the inmates we got had been convicted of drug crimes or property crimes to support a habit. What they needed was treatment.”
Texas still locks up plenty of violent offenders, of course, seventy-two thousand of them. But even this cohort is, in aggregate, less scary than most people think. This is partly because a wide variety of crimes qualify as violent. The classification includes homicide and pedophilia, to be sure, but also fighting, resisting arrest, or even illegal possession of pepper spray. In 2000, a Chicano teenager in Amarillo was convicted of assault and sentenced to five years in prison for throwing a nasty elbow during a high-school basketball game.
Moreover, because violent offenders tend to receive long sentences, many of them are serving time well beyond their predatory prime. Criminologists agree that the danger posed by violent felons peaks in the early twenties, declines through middle age, and bottoms out in the early fifties. In the age of “life without parole,” however, prison sentences stretch into the autumn years and beyond.
One prisoner I know, a dimple-faced lifer named Michael Jewell, admits that he was a thug when he went to prison for capital murder in 1970. But that was almost forty years ago. As a twenty-two-year-old, Jewell shot and killed a store clerk. As an aging baby boomer, he works full time as an inventory clerk and spends long hours in his cell reading psychology books and practicing Buddhist meditation. He is a different man than the one jurors sent to prison, yet his fate is defined by a single act.
Even in 1970, Jewell was a more complicated individual than the killer sketched by prosecutors. Like so many defendants, his life had been shaped by violence. “One of my first memories is fear,” he explained in a letter. When he was a child, he came home from a movie with his sister one day to find his mother curled up on the floor against the bed. Towering over her was Michael’s father, gripping her hair with one fist and pummeling her with the other. Another time, he proudly presented his father with a baby sparrow his brother had found. Drinking heavily with neighbors in the backyard, his father took the bird in his hand, stroked its back, and then popped its head off with his thumb. “I watched my own innocence thrashing around and dying in the bloody dirt,” Jewell said, looking back.
By the time Michael was eight, he was turning the violence he experienced at home outward. He remembered capturing and killing birds himself, whacking them with sticks. Soon he graduated to fistfights with other kids, then knife fights, then glue sniffing, and finally armed robbery. He went to reform school at the age of twelve and landed his first prison sentence at eighteen. It was after an escape that he murdered the store clerk. Jewell and his partner thought the man was going for a gun, but after they searched his slumped body, they realized he was just reaching down to hand them the night deposit bag.
Only in middle age did Jewell have the wherewithal to ask, “What the hell happened?” He does not know what turned him “from an innocent little kid into a young man who fired a bullet into another man’s chest,” he says. “But it wasn’t that I was naturally cold-blooded.”
Prisoners in Texas, as elsewhere, share a great many characteristics. They tend to be poor, poorly educated, and non-white. They also tend to be young, heedless, and angry, at least for the first few years behind bars. When you sit down and talk to inmates about their lives, however, you soon discover is that what unites them most of all is great pain: pain that they have soaked up as victims and pain they have inflicted on others.
Kimberly Leavelle, a recent parolee, epitomizes this dynamic, though like most women offenders, she has suffered more than harmed. A middle-aged white woman with a corny sense of humor, Leavelle is tirelessly optimistic but with little cause. After serving twelve years for armed robbery, she made parole on her fourth attempt in May 2005. With serious health problems, few marketable skills, and $100 in discharge money, she moved into a trailer with her mother outside of Dallas. Kim’s mother, Linda, has served time for bad checks, drugs, and prostitution. Her three siblings have also been to jail—one brother is still in prison—and one of her teenage daughters, whose childhood she largely missed just as her mother missed much of hers, was recently arrested for marijuana possession. When I talked to her shortly after her release, Leavelle was exuberant. “Freedom is strangely beautiful, new, and exciting,” she said. Still, the challenges of making ends meet and paying for medical treatment, all while tethered to an ankle bracelet, was already wearing her down. In December, she lost her first job.
Like many ex-prisoners, Leavelle has made a lifetime’s worth of bad decisions. She fell in love in junior high school and had a baby at the age of fifteen. Like her mother, she got into alcohol and drugs. In 1985, she shot a man she said was trying to rape her; she left him for dead and got ten years for attempted murder. Not long after she got out of prison in 1988, she and a girlfriend concocted “a Thelma and Louise scheme” to get Christmas presents for their kids. Borrowing a BB-gun, Leavelle and her partner robbed eight stores in the Dallas–Fort Worth area before getting nabbed. Although the weapon was relatively harmless, the charge was armed robbery. After accepting a guilty plea suggested by her court-appointed attorney, Leavelle received eight concurrent sentences, six of them for fifty years.
Leavelle’s recklessness led her straight to prison, but given the arc of her life, I found it hard to imagine how she could have ended up any place else. Born in Dallas in 1964, Kimberly Leavelle spent her early years with her mother and her mother’s second husband, a middle-class developer named Lloyd Wallace. “During the first four years of my life I had everything a child needs,” she writes. “I had my own room, nice clothes, a bike, and we even had a maid. . . . She was sweet as pie.” Kimberly is fond of such sentimental sayings, almost as if to make up for a life devoid of tender sentiment. We were “the family that looks perfect from the outside,” she says, “but on the inside my mom was a caged human being.”
As the oldest of two half brothers and a sister, Kim remembers the terrors of her suburban house hold more clearly than her siblings. Wallace was a tyrant. He became obsessive about Kim’s mother, Linda, checking and rechecking her odometer and timing her excursions. Returning late from the grocery store one evening, Kim remembers that when her mother, who was pregnant with her baby brother at the time, made it up to the porch, Wallace “stepped out and punched her so hard in the face that the groceries went flying, along with my mom.” Then he locked them out. Another time, Leavelle was awakened by banging and scratching in a closet. When she mustered up the courage to investigate, she found her mother “naked, tied up with cords from the blinds. Wallace had stomped her eye glasses, cut up all her clothes, cut her hair off.”
Linda finally escaped with her children, but the family fled from abuse into the abyss. Kim remembers teetering over her brother’s crib to give him a nighttime bottle because her mother was working late. She remembers standing in relief lines and going hungry. “We all looked dirty,” she recalls, “not clean and pretty like we used to.” “My mom always had to work. She cried a lot.”
One day, a distant aunt, “a fat, sweaty, huffy-voiced” woman named Gladys, with a no-count husband, DF., in tow, came to fetch Kimberly. She didn’t know it at the time, but she was being sent away because her mother was going to prison.