Cruel and Unusual?

Posted by Charlotte on June 21, 2007 at 6:44 am.

So, I am half way through the shoot for my dissertation film. I’m in Texas and today stood outside the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas for the first execution of our stay.

It was, to put it extremely simply, horrible. I felt an overwhelming helplessness that someone was being killed a couple of hundred metres away from me and there was nothing I could do about it. The guards cordon off the area around the prison but the media are allowed to set up within the barrier just opposite the entrance to the prison. The witnesses to the execution have to walk past the media to enter the building and today I just couldnt join them. At the time I thought the media placement was disgusting but then I thought that actually the more coverage executions get the better. The more time we spend here the more we realise that the people who live in the town the death chamber is located in don’t even notice that executions are happening, or care. So why should the rest of the world? It sickens me that it was such a non-event. When researching this it never occured to me that there wouldn’t be throngs of protesters, vigils, media etc. How could there not be? State assisted homicide is surely something that would get thousands of people’s attention. But no, it’s such a common occurance that people are so de-sensitised to it. Plus the prison seems to try and make it as clinical and matter of fact as possible. In many ways I think that’s a good thing as it shouldn’t be an “attraction” however how can people not even notice that someone is being killed in their town? I just can’t understand it.

There is one man, who we have interviewed already, who attends every execution and stands across the street from the Walls Unit holding a candle, not protesting but just making a peaceful statement that he is acknowledging that this is taking place. He was obviously there today and I really hold my hat up to him for maintaining that action and his principals for something like 17 years. There were about 5 people there for the vigil and it was good to see that. The drive back left me shaken and I could barely talk for all the thoughts running through my mind. My brain was trying to numb the experience but I was conciously trying to put into perspective exactly what I just attended and the gravity of the situation. The only thing I could do was constantly imagine my usual life and then transpose the event that I had just attended into that. It’s shocking and it’s something that will stay with me forever. Although it disturbed me, I’m glad I was there. I think people should have to be there, especially the voting public of Texas as this is being carried out in their name.

Huntsville is such a nice place to be in, we’ve been there nearly everyday so far and it really is a joy to be there. It’s cute, the people are nice, the surrounding area is lovely and we have really been welcomed by people of all viewpoints. However within in that there is an immense awareness of all of the prison buildings, the numerous correctional officers in uniform walking around, the undeniable presence of the police and the fact that you occasionally see an inmate walking around in their prison clothing.

On our first day in town we drove up to the Walls Unit to just drive round it and to get a feel for the area. As I pulled up to the stop sign an inmate walked right in front of the car, on his own. I found that really strange. On our way round I gave way to an inmate driving a tractor and then looked to my right and saw an inmate watering the garden of a nearby house with a guard walking round chatting with him.

The next day we were doing some general shots of the town and I saw an inmate being taken to the doctors. Today and inmate brought out refreshments for the guards manning the cordoned area and as we started shooting we saw our second recently released inmate of the day (the are really distinctive because they are issued generic clothing, in this case both were wearing white t-shirts and fubu dungarees, and are holding their possessions in a clear plastic bag). But it was eerie to see a recently released man walking right in front of the cordoned off area just before an execution.

From the people we’ve talked to, it’s really just that they’re so used to it. The Walls Unit houses all the really low risk inmates and just happens to also house the chamber.

Every inmate that is released is processed at the Walls and some of them have been bussed hundreds of miles to Huntsville just to be released. They are given bus fare and must be out of town by sundown. Many are extremely far from home, or even where they’re been in prison for years. It must be extremely disorientating and scary.

Instead of rambling I should talk about how the film is going as that is the purpose of this blog. We have some great interviews down and the general shots are fairly easy. The best things so far have been our trip to Crockett and all that entailed and this amazing petrol station we stumbled upon which is location just down the road from the Walls Unit. It is owned by a Jordanian called John and another guy A.J. has his own cafe within the petrol station. They are both extremely intelligent, funny and interesting. We had a great afternoon filming with them andwe feel probably most at home there. Many people come and just hang out there to talk to these guys and to eat one of A.J’s amazing (and I say amazing) homemade sausages. We have met some incredible people while spending time there and to be honest I think a large amount of the film will come from there. So we have to keep going back there.

We have another execution tomorrow which I am dreading, but it has to be done and we have a few more interviews racked up for the next couple of days. I’m quite troubled about how to actually visualise the progression of the film so that I know to get what I need though. I’m trying to plan everything out but I still am unsure as to how to do it.

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