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Inmate Says Texas Death Row
Is a Living Hell

ALAN ELSNER
Reuters News Service
01/07/2002

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.

 

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 protest prison conditions. His lone protest appeared to achieve little and attracted almost no attention outside a tight circle of death penalty opponents.

"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 televisions, 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 prisoner defiance.

"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 the face.

"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 inmates.

"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 1998 breakout.

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.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed an
interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit
research and educational purposes only.

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