WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Letters from an inmate have
revealed a harrowing picture of life on Texas' death
row where anti-death penalty advocates say 447 men are
held in unending solitary confinement, given rotten
food to eat, deprived of sleep and often subjected to
salvos of pepper spray by guards.
Roy Pippin's letters to his friend Nancy Bailey, a
Houston real estate
agent and anti-death penalty activist, provide a
window into a brutal
world of desperate prisoners struggling against an
unyielding prison administration.
Pippin was convicted in 1995 of kidnapping and
murdering two Colombians. He claims he was a
small-time drug user who was framed by bigger fish in
a drug smuggling operation.
On Dec. 31, Pippin ended a 35-day hunger strike to
conditions. His lone protest appeared to achieve
little and attracted
almost no attention outside a tight circle of death
"Conditions on Texas death row are atrocious. Inmates
are enclosed in tiny confined cubicles that are more
like boxes than cells and condemned to virtual sensory
deprivation. They are slowly being driven crazy,"
said Yolanda Torres, a lawyer in Riverside, Texas, who
has represented death row clients.
Polls show support for the death penalty in the United
States has fallen slightly in recent years to just
under two thirds. In Texas, which led the nation in
executions through the 1990s, the number hovers around
the 70 percent mark.
Until 2000, Texas' death row was housed at the Ellis
Unit prison near Huntsville in the east of the state,
where inmates could look out of their cells through
bars and interact with one another. They could work
four hours a day in a garment factory and participate
in group recreation.
ESCAPE PROMPTS MOVE
But after seven inmates staged an escape in November
1998, authorities shifted death row to the Polunsky
Unit, a maximum security prison 43 miles east of
Huntsville. Six of the escapees were quickly
recaptured and the seventh drowned.
In Polunsky, prisoners are held alone in cells with
solid walls and
allowed out for one hour of solitary recreation in an
empty room. Rick Halperin of the Texas Coalition to
Abolish the Death Penalty said prisoners suffered
sleep deprivation with constant noise and guards
shining a flashlight into their faces every hour of
the night. Breakfast is served at 3 a.m.
"Their food is often spoiled or rancid, they have no
religious services, no heath care and are allowed only
such personal belongings as will fit into two shopping
bags," he said.
Lawyer Meredith Martin Roundtree said guards used
pepper spray and resorted to force on any hint of
"Because of the ventilation system, the gas is spread
throughout the pod each time they use it. Prisoners'
only form of protest is to jam their toilets so that
the cellblock is often flooded with feces," she said.
Pepper spray, which prisoners call 'gas,' is made from
cayenne peppers and causes temporary blindness and
restricted breathing for up to an hour when sprayed in
"I've seen a marked deterioration in the mental state
of my clients since the move from Ellis," said Austin
lawyer Gary Taylor, who represents several death row
"The attitude among most Texans is they don't want
convicted murderers living in a country club. But
many would be appalled if they knew what is going
on," he said.
Texas Department of Corrections spokesman Larry
Fitzgerald said prisoners could no longer work or meet
because some had used those privileges to plan the
FOOD IS FINE
As to the food, he said, "The same meals are served
in the officers'
dining room. I eat them myself."
He said prisoner counts were done frequently day and
night for security reasons and pepper spray was used
"only when warranted on an individual basis."
In his letters, Pippin described a 15-day lockdown
that started Nov. 16 during which prisoners were
deprived of hot meals, regular showers, denied
recreation and were often not given clean clothes or
towels. He said his cell frequently floods with rain
water as well as toilet run-off.
The lockdown followed the Nov. 15 execution of Emerson
Rudd, who resisted guards and had to be subdued with
pepper spray on his final day.
In one letter to Bailey, Pippin wrote: "Skinner (an
inmate) got gassed today. They harass him daily,
sometimes several times a day."
In another letter: "They tried to get DW (another
prisoner) out to search his cell and had to run in,
gas, suit up etc. That gas is a tough one even out in
the open. I don't know how he keeps handling it. Two
times in three hours..."
In another: "They had to suit up, hose down, gas and
run in on Weatfall (an inmate) in C rec room already
today. The gas didn't reach over here too bad."
In another: "My cell was flooded again at 5 am. I
got a towel to mop it up at noon ... Twice as much
water as last time. Cells 18, 19, 20 and 21 all flood
each time it rains or the runs get flooded."
Halperin alleged that one prisoner, Eddie Rowton, died
of a heart attack last July after pleading with guards
for medical attention for two days.
Fitzgerald said in a statement that prison personnel
began cardiopulmonary resuscitation as soon as they
were aware of a problem and transferred Rowton to the
hospital where he was pronounced dead.
There are 454 people currently on death row in Texas
-- 447 men and 7 women. Last year, the state
executed 17 people by lethal injection the previous
three years it had put to death 95 people, and Texas
has 10 people scheduled for execution in the first
four months of this year.
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