A Guarded Past

Texas's impressive new prison museum engages in a little escapism of its own

Embittered convicts sometimes remark in derision to their prison overseers, "If it wasn't for me, you wouldn't have a job."

And so it is with the new Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. Former Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) employees are responsible for the museum's existence, and constitute most of its board of directors, but it is the convicts and their handiwork that are the main attractions.

The museum doors open into a gift shop stocked with scores of reasonably priced handmade craft items: leather wallets, key chains, exquisite artwork and rocking horses made by Texas prisoners. Museum director Weldon Svoboda says, "We purchase directly from the inmate, mark them up and resell them here."

Working stiffs model guard apparel.
Scott Nowell
Working stiffs model guard apparel.

The museum Web site even tells of the "most gratifying visitors" for museum officials: "former inmates, some of whom make the museum their first stop upon being released from a nearby Huntsville correction facility."

However, as the museum's tribute to slain officers shows, some of the information dispensed by the museum hardly squares with the perceptions of the former inmates -- or the justice system, for that matter.

The Texas Prison Museum began in a tiny storefront in Huntsville's downtown square in 1989. Years of private fund-raising generated more than $1 million for the 10,000-square-foot building, which opened in November. Most exhibits were donated or are on loan from TDCJ, which also supplied the inmate labor for the interior construction.

The museum intends to support itself through ticket sales ($4 for adults) and gift shop proceeds. Svoboda says the museum had 10,000 visitors in its first month of operation and anticipates drawing more than 50,000 visitors a year.

The building, clearly visible on the east side of Interstate 45 from exit 118, resembles a prison, complete with razor wire and the same distinctive red brick used in older Texas prisons. A uniformed mannequin waves to visitors from a mock guard tower.

Inside, the institutional feel of a prison is reflected by an authentic six- by nine-foot cell, complete with steel bars, bunks, stool, desk and sink/toilet. In prison, bright yellow lines on bare concrete floors are used to keep convicts from guards. Here, they keep visitors at arm's length from the exhibits.

Displayed are restraints -- handcuffs, ball-and-chains and other odd devices from eras when convicts were treated more like beasts of burden -- as well as former tools for guards, such as lead-lined slapjacks, tommy guns and billy clubs. The ingenuity of inmates can be seen in shanks, deadly slingshots, spears and homemade firearms. There's even a hardened-foam fist-shaped weapon with enough sharp knives sticking out of it to do Freddy Krueger justice.

An exhibit devoted to escapes features a perfectly proportioned four-foot-long wooden propeller, designed for a lawn-mower-engine-powered airplane. Even though it never took off, the device gives a new meaning to the term "flight risk."

There also are the IV tubes and syringes used in the nation's first execution by lethal injection in 1982. The equipment is laid out matter-of-factly and is a model of sterile understatement.

Museum officials also acknowledge anti-death-penalty protests: Staring back at visitors is a life-size portrait of Karla Faye Tucker, the pickax murderer-turned-jailhouse Christian who was executed in 1998. Beside the picture are the charred remains of an American flag burned in protest of that execution.

Across from that exhibit is Old Sparky, which Svoboda calls the facility's biggest draw. This electric chair sent 361 men to their deaths between 1924 and 1964. "People have a fascination with capital punishment," he laments. "They expect to see the electric chair." Guests, especially kids, often ask if they can have their picture taken sitting in Old Sparky. The answer is always no.

Visitors on Fridays get a special bonus: museum tours led by retired warden Jim Willett, a volunteer who serves on the museum's board. Willett, while warden at the Walls Unit in Huntsville from 1998 to 2001, supervised 89 executions. Then and now, he admits being conflicted over capital punishment.

More conflicts come in the museum's efforts to address the controversial realities of the recent past. Displays focus a harsh light on early eras of abuse within the Texas prison system, which seems to follow repeating periods of abuse, then media exposure, public reaction and attempts at improvements. The most recent started with the landmark Ruiz v. Estelle litigation that began in 1971. Judge William Wayne Justice ordered broad reforms in a case that didn't end until last year.

The Ruiz exhibit notes that a federal judge declared the prison system unconstitutional, but it barely addresses the evidence and reasons for that finding.

When asked about what was omitted, Svoboda says, "Look at who declared it -- a liberal activist judge. He seemed to have it out for the prison system. Most judges wouldn't have declared it."

Steve Martin, the prison system's attorney during much of the Ruiz case, disagrees. "I think that any judge who saw that evidence would have ruled the same way," he says.

And don't look for a gift shop or concession stand stocked with tins of Vita-Pro -- or any mention of Andy Collins, the prison system director convicted last year of bribery in a deal to feed prisoners the dubious meat supplement that left thousands of them with health problems.

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