Pubdate: Wed, 20 Nov 2002
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2002 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Thom Marshall
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (Treatment)
Bookmark: (Opinion)


PAY THREE BUCKS and you can step inside the prison cell display, put on an 
old-fashioned striped prison shirt and get a personal photo souvenir of 
your visit to the prison museum at Huntsville.

No thanks. Already I was out $4 admittance, and other exhibits had made me 
plenty uncomfortable, so pretending to be an inmate held no attraction 

The place gave me the willies from the time I pulled into the parking lot 
overlooked by a watchtower manned by a dummy armed guard. I'd been feeling 
uneasy about this tourist attraction even before that, starting when I saw 
the front-page picture of "Old Sparky" that ran last Wednesday, with a 
story about the prison museum's new building.

Normally, I look forward to visiting museums and have ventured into a wide 
variety of them all across this great land -- from big famous ones like our 
Smithsonian facilities in Washington to small specialty collections like 
the Gorrie Ice Museum in Apalachicola, Fla.

Museums perform valuable services. They preserve history. They educate. 
They often help us to understand past struggles, to appreciate how far 
we've come, to plan a better future.

Pride in the product But this Texas Prison Museum strikes me as different 
from others I've known and toured.

It is obvious from looking around that there is a certain amount of pride 
in the product, such as you might expect to see in a historic display 
connected to a beer brewery or an ice cream factory.

On the Texas Prison Museum's Web site you find this description: "The new 
museum exhibits trace the development of the Texas prison system from its 
humble beginnings in 1848 to the system of today: a system that 
incarcerates approximately 150,000 offenders with a 2.5 billion dollar 
annual budget."

That sort of growth is nothing to be proud of. It is shameful. Our state's 
prison system -- one of the world's largest -- does not represent success, 
but colossal failure.

We fail to provide sufficient treatment for people with addictions, and we 
put them in prison. We fail to provide sufficient care for the mentally 
ill, and we put them in prison. We fail to provide reasonable and effective 
probation terms, and we put the violators in prison. We fail to 
rehabilitate people, and we put them in prison again and again.

Another reason this Texas Prison Museum bothers me is the heavy oak chair 
outfitted with numerous leather straps and some wiring. Some 361 prisoners 
were executed in this chair between 1924 and 1964.

Museum staffer Jim Willett said museum visitors, especially children, often 
ask if they can take photos of one another sitting in the chair.

He said it isn't allowed, but he expects someone soon may try it anyway. In 
the old museum the chair was behind a glass wall, but in the new museum the 
exhibit is protected only by a barrier that someone could easily climb over.

Willett was the one on duty when I came in and he said if I had any 
questions, he would be glad to try to answer them.

Witness to scores of deaths The man is an expert on the subject. He began 
working as a prison guard while in college and went right up the ladder 
until retiring last year as senior warden of the Walls unit, where he 
oversaw the execution by injection of 89 prisoners during his three years 
in that post.

But the questions I had as I looked around the place were not ones he could 

Shortly after retiring as warden, Willett wrote a piece that appeared in 
the Chronicle and which he ended by saying, "I have watched men being put 
to death for hideous crimes and wondered at that moment if we were doing 
the right thing.

"I walked out of this job much the same as when I began it, full of 
questions. And with a gnawing in my gut that hasn't gone away and isn't 
likely to any time soon."

He seems a nice fellow. Said he enjoys working in the museum. Asked what I 
thought about the place.

I told him it bothered me.

That was Monday. A couple of miles from the museum, at Willett's old 
workplace, preparations were being made to execute two more people this week.
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