Down on Peckerwood Hill

It's the last stop for some Texas prison inmates

At times it must seem that way, but not every convict released from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice comes to Houston. Some take up residence at a place formally known within the TDCJ as Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery but better known in Huntsville as "Peckerwood Hill" -- the final holding cell for more than 1,000 former involuntary guests of the state.

Situated on a sloped patch of land thick with towering pine trees east of Sam Houston State University, Peckerwood Hill is the largest of the little-known series of prison cemeteries in the state.

Row after row of white cement crosses and headstones, made by inmates at the prison quarry, line the 22 acres. The oldest dates back to 1870. Some of the markers display only the prison identification number of inmates whose bodies were not claimed by friends or family. Others include both names and numbers. The letters EX distinguish prisoners who were executed from those who simply died or were killed while serving their sentences. A full-time squad of inmates from the nearby Walls Unit maintains the grounds and digs new graves by hand. It's a quiet setting, disturbed only by the sound of traffic at the adjacent convenience store and the spray from the car wash across the street.

Standing next to a fresh mound of red clay dirt excavated for a grave-to-be, Jack King, director of the Huntsville Funeral Home, explains that his mortuary has handled final arrangements for unclaimed inmates and those whose families can't afford a private burial for almost four decades. Since there are prisons across Texas, the price King charges the state varies, depending on how far a deceased inmate must be transported to Huntsville. Each inmate gets the same consideration. They are buried in their release clothes (a work shirt and khaki pants) inside a cloth-covered pine casket -- don't call it a "box," King admonishes -- that retails for $835. The model is on display in King's showroom and is available for purchase by the non-inmate public.

"These are Christian burials," King emphasizes. "The bodies are prepared just like in the free world. Even when we do four in a day, it's not a mass [burial] deal. We put them in a funeral coach. We don't bring them out here in a pickup truck. They're brought out and properly buried."

Services are performed by prison chaplains of various faiths. Occasionally the TDCJ allows other inmates to go to the funerals of friends. Family and friends from outside the prison system occasionally show up for a graveside service. Usually the proceedings are routine. But not always.

"We had a witch out here the other day," King says dryly. "It was just kind of a different service. They used a lot of salt in it. The chaplain and the warden just said, 'We're going to have our service then y'all can have your service.' So, they had their service and they salted him down."

Inmates who've died of AIDS-related diseases have increased the number of taxpayer-funded interments in recent years. The state's resumption of executions in 1982 also has brought more business King's way. Of the 92 inmates who've had their death sentences carried out in the last 13 years, 21 are at perpetual rest on Peckerwood Hill.

One of those burials is especially memorable to King -- not for the service but for what happened later. A few weeks after that 1984 execution and burial, King says, reporters showed up at Huntsville Funeral Home with information that a woman who had befriended the late death row inmate while he was in prison was going to the cemetery to have a birthday party for him.

"She went out there," recalls King, "and spread a big blanket and had her a birthday cake and her jambox. And the two of them had a big birthday party for him. Her and him. He didn't say much, though. And he didn't eat no cake."

TDCJ officials and historians are unable to say for sure how the cemetery came to be known as Peckerwood Hill. But it's not hard to figure. According to Webster's (and as many East Texans can vouch), "peckerwood" is term used to describe "a rural white Southerner -- often used disparagingly." But the one historical figure of note who was buried at Peckerwood Hill didn't quite fit that demographic category.

Under one of the larger pine trees in the cemetery is a special marker designating the spot where the body of Kiowa chief Satanta was once buried. Satanta, also known as White Bear, was one of the signers of the Medicine Lodge Treaty, in which the chiefs of the Southern Plains tribes agreed to limit where their people could live and hunt and, in effect, gave up their nomadic lives and were forced onto reservations. Satanta was captured in 1871 and convicted of murder for a wagon train massacre on Salt Creek Prairie in Jack County. According to prison archivist Bob Pierce, Satanta's death sentence was commuted to life.

"They decided that wouldn't do anything because Indians think death is a sign of honor," says Pierce, "and what would hurt the Indian more than killing him was putting him in prison." Satanta eventually committed suicide by flinging himself through a second-floor window of a prison hospital onto a brick courtyard. In 1963, with the approval of then-Governor John Connally, members of the Kiowa tribe were allowed to exhume Satanta's grave, and his remains were reburied on the Kiowa reservation in Oklahoma. Satanta's relatives performed a purification ritual and continue to consider the original gravesite at Peckerwood Hill as sacred ground.

It was also in 1963 that prison officials decided to reclaim the neglected Peckerwood Hill in hopes of making it aesthetically pleasing, if not sacred. For years the "felons' field," although still used for burials, had not been maintained. But with the approval of prison system director George Beto, Captain Joe Byrd, the assistant warden at the Walls Unit, used inmate labor to restore the cemetery. When the cleanup was complete, it was determined that the cemetery contained the graves of 922 convicts -- 918 men and 4 women. Prison officials say they have no record of how many inmates have been buried there since then.

According to Byrd's grandson, Jay Byrd, himself now the warden of the Clemens Unit near Brazoria, Captain Byrd was a big, intimidating man who had a love of flowers. Byrd says his grandfather took special pride in the restoration of the inmate graveyard, which would come to bear his name after his own death.

"It represented him as a decent human being," says Byrd. "He believed people should be punished for what they did. But no matter what a person did on earth, he always believed that we should give them the same respect as anyone else when they die."

With the prison business booming in Texas, it's likely that many more taxpayer-funded last respects will be paid on Peckerwood Hill. In fact, the TDCJ has just cleared a section of pine trees on the cemetery grounds to accommodate more pine boxes.

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