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22 October 2009 

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Death Row Inmates in Texas Tell Their Stories in New Book


21 October 2009

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The U.S. state with the busiest death chamber and one of the largest prison populations is Texas, where public opinion polls show the death penalty is supported by more than 70 percent of the population. A new book by students at a Texas university compiles writings and art work done by condemned prisoners. The book, Upon This Chessboard of Nights and Days, Voices from Texas Death Row, was published by Texas Review Press, on the campus of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville - a city that is the location of one of the state's largest prisons and where executions are carried out. The book provides a rare look into the minds of men who await their moment in the death chamber.

Texas courts have condemned nearly 350 men and 10 women to be executed. The men are kept in a high-security prison near Livingston, Texas, a short drive from Huntsville, where the execution chamber, known as Ellis Unit One is housed.

One of the men on death row is 31-year-old Robert Will, who, at the age of 22, took part in a crime that resulted in the murder of a police officer.

Robert Will
Robert Will
When asked to write something for the book on Texas' death row, he chose not to write about himself, but about a fellow inmate who took his own life. "My friend was a genuinely good person who just made some bad choices in life," he wrote. Will says many inmates on death row struggle with guilt over the people they killed as well as the anxiety of knowing they are condemned to die."

"There is more stress on a person's psyche, because you are living under a sentence of death and that can weigh heavily on a person's mind. I mean I have seen guys literally go completely insane," he said.

In addition to writings, the new book contains art work done by death row inmates, many of whom Will regards as true artists. "There is so much talent back here. And I know that this might sound outrageous, but if someone reads that book, perhaps it will not sound so outrageous. You have individuals back here who, I mean, you have artists who are brilliant, absolutely brilliant artists," he said.

Paul Ruffin (red shirt)with students
Paul Ruffin (red shirt) with students
The idea for the book on death row originated with Sam Houston State University English Professor Paul Ruffin, who teaches a class in which students develop a book from inception to printing. He says this book gives a voice to people who society has cast off. "What we wanted to do was give them an outlet for their work, for their expression. We wanted to know what it was like, day-to-day, living on death row," he said.

Around 50 male inmates submitted writings and art work. But none of the condemned women responded, much to Ruffin's disappointment. He says they, like many male inmates, might have distrusted the motives of the people working on the book. A photo of a torn-up request for submissions is featured in the book.

Paula Khalaf, student editor
Paula Khalaf, student editor
But one of the book's seven student editors, Paula Khalaf, says those who did contribute seemed to like the idea. "One of the inmates said, 'Thank you for the opportunity to show that we are not monsters; we are human beings,'" she said.

Khalaf says that before working on this book, she never thought much about the death penalty, but she was deeply touched by reading the stories of men who often grew up in broken homes and who, as one inmate says, "became lost souls as children." "I have to say I have probably changed my feelings about the death penalty. Probably, if I had to come down as either for or against it at this point, I would be against it," she said.

James Ridgway
James Ridgway
But fellow editor James Ridgway has mixed feelings about that issue and the prisoners themselves. "The first reaction is to be sympathetic, like, 'Oh, wow, these are really sad stories and I feel bad.' And then, the second thing that happens is you look up the crime and you are horrified," he said.

Although the book does not describe the crimes committed by the inmate contributors, the information is provided online by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Ridgway says working on the book challenged him intellectually and emotionally. You are reading these things and this kind of dark mood sets over you and again, whether you are for or against the death penalty, that is not my point - it is that sifting through enough of that [writing] sort of puts that mood on you," he said.

There is so much interest in the book that Professor Ruffin says his new class is already at work on a follow-up book that will include creative writing by inmates and various kinds of art work as well. One early submission is a dice game made of scrap material by an inmate who also included detailed, handwritten instructions on how to play the game he invented in his cell.

Ruffin says one goal of this project has already been accomplished in that the condemned men are no longer just names and numbers. "They have become something like people we know now, whereas before they were obscure," he said.

Copies of the Texas death row book were sent to the inmate contributors. Upon This Chessboard of Nights and Days, Voices from Texas Death Row is available for purchase in bookstores as well as online.


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