Living Texas Death Row
by Gerald E. Marshall
I never forget the first feeling that I had when I came to death row. It was an experience of different realms. No one was touching me but it felt as if I was burning. The sensation was all over my skin. Like someone had a hold of my soul. It’s something I have never experienced before.
I was led off a white van similar to a minivan that people use for their families. It had no windows, all I could do was look at myself through a mirror that I didn’t have. I thought to myself over and over “How did I end up here?” Then, “When would they kill me?” I kept asking myself this over and over as the tires rolled towards Polunsky Unit, where they house death row prisoners.
The way to the prison for prisoners is through the back of the prison. It passes over water puddles and rocks. It makes the van shake forcing you to brace yourself because there is no seat belt. When we finally get to the back of the prison there is a convoy waiting for me.
They shackled me from my waist to my ankles to make sure that I did not run. I doubt if I would have tried that because the guards were heavily armed. The shackles make you have to bend over to walk like someone in pain. The convoy is all white with country accents. “I’m in a small country town” I thought when I talked to them. There were white guards and black prisoners everywhere.
I went to a small room to be orientated. The warden at the time over death row was black. He, like many other wardens used death row as a stepping stone to running his own prison. Once you’ve run death row you can run any prison. In reality it is more dangerous in regular prison because the prisoners are not isolated. We went through a ritual where they asked me all types of questions and then took photos of my tattoos so that they can be on file. They also began to ask me questions about my case but I didn’t answer those. After I was done they escorted me to a pod.
Death row is comprised of six pods. A through F pods. I was escorted to B-Pod. While there, I saw a few blacks working the pod. The guard looked at me and said that I’d be recreating outside. Two prisoners played basketball on the recreation yard. Each prisoner had his own recreation yard. All prisoners on Texas death row are isolated.
The first time I said something on death row was when I saw the cage they were putting me in. The prisoner who worked with the guard – They are called SSI’s – was taking some magazines from the cage which had been left by the prisoner before me. I stopped him from taking the magazines. The guard smiled and said “Oh, I guess he can talk.” He told the prisoner to leave the magazines there in the cage.
The pods are built in six different sections, A through F sections. Each section has a day room in it. The day room is bigger than the cage. It has nothing but a pull up bar and a table in it. Prisoners have the option of going to recreation every day for two hours. The other two days – the weekend—we are stuck in our cages all day.
The way the sections are built you can communicate with other prisoners all day. There are fourteen cages in each section. Some prisoners play chess all day long. It can sound like a recreation yard with kids.
One can go outside to the recreation yard too. There is two basketball goals on each side with a ball on each side. There is a game we play called “run and shoot.” It consists of each player running from corner to corner shooting the ball. The first person to make ten shots wins. There is two hours for recreation so in between that time you see how many games you can run. It’s a pretty good work out, especially during the summer. You can also talk on a personal level outside.
During the day time they feed us lunch and dinner around running recreation. Because we are on death row we are always escorted in handcuffs. There is also two guards with us. Because the guards are taking prisoners to and from recreation the time fluctuates from pod to pod on when we get fed. Sometimes it is 9 or 11am. Other times it can get later than that.
Food is a constant problem on death row. It’s not just death row though. Can you imagine having to feed thousands of people every day? You’re not trying to feed these people the best food, you’re just trying to get them fed. So this makes the food naturally uneatable most times. It varies from being undercooked, which, is okay because you can heat it up in your hot pot. Sometimes it is spoiled. They are most times trying to feed some leftovers from a week ago. Often the food is heated up spoiled and then delivered that way, the smell is horrible. Most times we have to force them to get us better food because the ranking officers smell the food and won’t allow them to serve it.
Breakfast is fed at three in the morning. The guards who have no morals about themselves know that many of the prisoners are asleep so they go by their cages without feeding them. Forcing the prisoners to miss breakfast.
These are regular things that we go through on Texas death row and get from the state. Then there is the commissary. It is a state run store where they allow us to buy things. This is optional and only available if the prisoner has funds in his trust fund account.
I would say that death row is a mental war that you go through with yourself and the administration. You lose some battles and you win some battles. You remember at all times, that you have to make sure that they don’t kill you.