Change of address
Death row's new home offers fewer amenities for its tenants
By Bruce Tomaso / The Dallas Morning News
LIVINGSTON, Texas - Death-row inmates probably aren't going to like their change of address.
Beginning soon - for security reasons, state prison officials won't say exactly when - the 450-plus men awaiting execution in Texas will be moved to a new high-tech, high-security prison southwest of Livingston, in Polk County.
The new death row, at the Terrell Prison, will afford the condemned prisoners less freedom and fewer privileges than the current death row,
housed since 1965 in a wing of the Ellis prison near Huntsville.
Among other things, no televisions will be permitted. Prisoners will be
confined to their steel-doored cells for 22 hours each day, let out only for solo, supervised periods of recreation. They will take all meals alone in their cells.
"This facility was specifically designed to house problem inmates," Robert
Treon, Terrell's warden, said Tuesday during a tour of the new death row.
"The physical structure is designed to be much more secure than our older
At the old death row, condemned killers with good behavior records could
wander from their cells to communal day rooms - at least, until a rackdown
brought on by an inmate's escape at Thanksgiving. They had recreation time
in groups and could eat in groups in the day rooms. And, from many cells,
they could see hallway television sets that were left on throughout the day.
The eight Texas women awaiting execution will not be part of the move.
They will remain in a unit at Gatesville, west of Waco. Executions will
continue to take place at the Walls prison, in downtown Huntsville.
The Texas Board of Criminal Justice voted last month to move death row.
The chief reason cited was capacity; the death wing at Ellis was overcrowded, with about 100 condemned killers forced to double-bunk. At
Terrell, 504 death-row inmates can be housed in single cells.
However, the board was also motivated by the Thanksgiving breakout of
Martin Gurule, a double murderer from Corpus Christi who cut his way out
of a fenced exercise yard, hid on a roof until after midnight, then scaled the prison's two wire-topped fences.
Six would-be accomplices, also from death row, were pinned by guards'
gunfire and surrendered.
Mr. Gurule, 29, was found a week later, drowned in a nearby creek.
A prison board investigation blamed the escape principally on negligence by corrections officers. However, it also faulted the design of Ellis as outdated.
And, it said, the convicts had time to plot their escape during many hours
spent together at work or relaxing on the Ellis death-row wing.
The new death row, located in a building isolated from the rest of the vast Terrell compound, employs a "pod" design, in which corrections officers in a central observation area monitor several cell wings, or sectors, arrayed around them in a semicircle. Each sector has 14 cells.
The 34-year-old Ellis prison employs the more traditional arrangement of
cells running along both sides of long, straight corridors.
"This design enables us to isolate the population in small numbers and
monitor them much more closely," said Mr. Treon.
The 60-square-foot cells are brightly lit by fluorescent lights, shielded behind thick steel screens. Each cell also has one narrow, high window, perhaps 3 inches high by 4 feet wide.
Each cell is sparsely appointed with a metal bed, one pillow and a thin
mattress covered in blue plastic, a metal shelf and a writing table bolted to the concrete wall, and a stainless steel fixture that is a combination sink, drinking fountain and commode.
Recreation areas are enclosed with steel bars, not the chain-link fencing that Mr. Gurule was able to cut through at Ellis with a piece of hacksaw blade.
Like other Texas prisons, Terrell is not air-conditioned. Mr. Treon said it is equipped with a system to provide "tempered air" that's 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the outdoors.
At Ellis, death-row inmates with good records were allowed to work in a
garment factory, which was air-conditioned because the sewing machines
don't work well in a hot, humid atmosphere.
Mr. Treon said some sort of work program will be instituted for death-row
inmates at Terrell, but it will not be as extensive - or, presumably, as comfy - as the Ellis garment factory.
He said he expects morale among arriving death-row inmates to be somewhat sour as they get used to their stark new surroundings.
"It'll be a significant change for them," he said. "I'm sure there are some who'll have real problems with the way things are here versus there. But they'll get acclimated to it."
In the three years he's been warden at Terrell, he said, there have been two attempted escapes. In one, an inmate doing field work got away for about 20 minutes before guard dogs tracked him down. In the other, three inmates inside the prison compound made a break for the fences, but were stopped by guards' gunfire.
Austin American-Statesman, 9th June 1999
Prison officials welcomed the media with open arms Tuesday as they
showed off the new home for Texas' death row, an isolated cellblock deep inside a 6-year-old prison with a reputation for toughness.
But by October, when the last of the 460 condemned men are moved here
from the escape-troubled Ellis Unit 40 miles away, the welcome could be
chilly for some.
Under a proposed rule, prison officials would define who are the news
media, who they will allow inside the Terrell Unit to interview death
row prisoners and who they will not.
The "nots" would include talk-show hosts, foreign film producers,
Christian broadcasters and tabloid TV types -- the same folks who in the past have criticized Texas for executing so many convicts, from Karla Faye Tucker on down.
But officials say it has nothing to do with content of their work and
everything to do with limited staff and time to field a growing number of inquiries from the news media in Texas and across the United States.
"The department is being overwhelmed by people who are portraying themselves as news media and who are not," explained Allan Polunsky, chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, the prison system's
governing board, which will consider adopting the rule at its July meeting.
"We are trying to define who is the legitimate news media and who is
not. Dan Rather is legitimate news media. Montel Williams is not."
Critics who have flooded prison executives with protests of the media
policy and related changes to death row visitation rules see it another
"Legitimate is in the eye of the beholder," said Charles Davis, a
Southern Methodist University journalism professor who studied convict interview policies from around the country for the Society of Professional
Journalists, a leading reporters' group.
Until recently, he and prison officials agree, Texas had one of the most
accessible prison systems for the media of any state. Other states prohibit or greatly restrict media access to convicts for interviews.
"At a time when Texas is killing more people by execution than any other
state, we seem to want to keep it a positive experience for the state --
by keeping out the media who we don't agree with," Davis said, echoing
sentiments of others. "But even `Hard Copy' can break good, solid stories."
Maybe so, argues Glen Castlebury, the prison agency's Austin-based spokesman who helped write the new rule, but "infotainment is not legitimate news media. What point of view someone has makes no difference.
That's not what the policy says."
The proposed rule says reporters may interview death row convicts as
long as the visit does not disrupt security or "detract from the deterrence of crime."
The latter phrase was taken from a policy enacted administratively a year ago after the media blitz surrounding the February 1998 execution of
Tucker, the first woman to die in Texas' execution chamber since the
With her execution came a tidal wave of media interest in Texas' death
row and its record execution rate, from Pat Robertson's "700 Club" to
Danish, French and Italian TV networks to talk-show celebrities such as Jerry Springer, Oprah Winfrey, Montel Williams and Leeza Gibbons.
Officials were irked that some appeared more as advocates, more as
entertainment, than as news journalists.
Since the administrative policy was put in place a year ago, most
requests by those shows and networks have been denied. But Larry Fitzgerald, one of only 3 media spokesmen for the 112-unit prison system, said those requests have continued to pour in -- sometimes 3 or 4 a day, in addition to the sometimes hundreds of calls the agency fields from news reporters.
"One wanted to televise a convict confronting his victim's relatives for
the first time. Europe has a big fascination with any woman who has a
pen pal thing going with a Texas convict, and we've turned down several requests to let them meet on camera."
If the rule is adopted, it would be the first time the board has voted
to differentiate between news and mass media. So far, no news organizations have protested, officials said.
With Canadian-born killer Joseph Stanley Faulder approaching a new
execution date June 17 and Canadian reporters pressing for interviews
about that case, the proposed rule has raised some speculation that Canadian criticism of Texas' death penalty may be partly behind it. Not so, said Castlebury.
On Tuesday, Texas reporters toured the Terrell Unit, soon to be death
row's third home in 150 years. Building 12, a two-story, concrete-and-steel lockup designed with death row in mind when it was opened in 1993, has housed "administrative segregation" convicts -- those whose chronic misbehavior or violence has earned them a place in solitary confinement.
Unlike at Ellis, there will be no television, and the new cells have
about 60 square feet of space, more than the 45 or so at Ellis, the home to death row since 1965. With death row at Ellis nearly full, prison officials late last year began considering moving the top-security lockup after seven death row killers tried an escape on Thanksgiving Day. Martin Gurule made it out but drowned in a nearby creek.