Monday, June 23, 2014

The Visit

Livingston, TX is situated about an hour north of Houston, the 4th largest city in America. Livingston itself only boasts a population of just over 5,000 though. It can be quite a juxtaposition traveling from the slow, sleepy streets of downtown Livingston to the busy rat race of Houston...2 lane highways bordered by modest houses and fields give way to 10 lanes of traffic flanked by skyscrapers, industry, retailers, and stadiums.

Traveling through Livingston, you'd never know that just past the business district on the outskirts of town
you'll find Polunsky, a maximum security prison farm of 470 acres and 23 buildings that houses almost as many people as the town itself. This is where you'll find Texas' death row and where I visiting last week on June 16 and 17.

It wasn't my first trip nor my last, but no matter how many times I've made that 12 hour trek through Florida forests, busy metropolises, and Lousiana swamps to get just over the Eastern border of Texas, it never gets any easier to driving into those prison gates.

Driving into the prison complex takes you around a curved drive that leads straight to a small shack used for inspections with the parking lot to your left. There are rows of yellow bumpers marking spots for visitors and even more that are filled with officers' vehicles. Once you reach the shack, the officer will ask you what your business is at the prison. If you're there for a visit like I was, you'll give the inmate's number and your driver's license. The officer writes down your info including the tag number on your car. Then you'll be asked to open your glove box, pop the hood, and also pop the trunk. Each place will be inspected. At times, my bags have been looked through as well. That's a good day. On a bad day...I've had the undergarments in my bags fondled and my food choices while on the road questioned. I've been mocked and made to feel like I was scum for showing my face at those prison gates. Fortunately, this trip was nothing like those memories that have made it so I start shaking before I even get within a mile of the prison for a visit, and the officer at the front was professional and even a bit friendly...that makes all the difference in the world sometimes.

Once you pass inspection, you pull into the parking lot to the left and make sure your windows are rolled up and your doors are locked. If you forget, it's likely you'll have to leave your visit to do so and that only takes away from the time you have with whoever it is you're seeing.

There's a small building in front surrounded by fence and razor wire. You enter this building with a bright yellow tray located in front of the doors in your hand. Once inside, you place the tray on a table and put the few belongings you have into it. This includes all jewelry you're wearing and the contents of your clear bag--keys, driver's license, and the money you brought in to get the inmate a few items out of the vending machines. You have to bring in the money already rolled, but once inside you have to unroll it. You can't unroll it beforehand or you're not allowed to bring it in. You have to unroll it and throw it all into the tray (not in your bag). You remove your shoes and place them into the tray as well. The tray then goes through a scanner much like you find in airports. While your things are being scanned, you go through a metal detector. You're then given a very thorough pat-down by an officer and a metal detecting wand is also run over your body. If you're cleared, the officer looks at the bottoms of your feet then you're allowed to load all your things including all your now-loose change into your clear bag before you proceed to the next station--a window where you state who you are visiting and hand over your driver's license. In trade, you're given a slip of paper notating who you are seeing and a death row visitors badge that you hang around your neck. On the first day, mine read DR 6 because I was the 6th visitor.

When you get your badge, the officer at this station opens an electronic door to allow you into a small side room. You move through a door on the opposite side of this small room to get outside. This walkway is surrounded by fence and the gate at the end of it has to be electronically opened by the officer who just checked you in. Once through this gate, you walk down a walkway that's between the entrance building and the visitation building. You go through the doors on the next building, turn immediately to your left and walk down a hallway to another set of electronic sliding doors. You flash your badge and an officer in a secure room opens those doors. You're now in a small hallway with 3 doors--the one you just entered, one immediately to your left that goes to visitation, and one across from you that goes to the rest of the building. On your right is the officer's secure room. He or she will then open the doors to visitation. You cross that room and give your slip of paper to the officer handling visits and she'll seat you at a numbered cubicle.

Here is where the magic happens.

Kidding, there's nothing magical about this fucking place.

It can take 10 minutes to over an hour for the person you're visiting to come out. When he does, he is placed into a cage across the glass from where you're sitting. His space is less than 6 feet high, 4 feet across, and 4 feet wide. It's smaller than a closet. The offender is handcuffed and must put his hands to a slot in the door to have the handcuffs removed.

This is where I sat last Monday and Tuesday, June 16 and 17 to see Robert Pruett (read about our friendship here and here and find his documentary here). It didn't take long either day for Robert to be placed in that cage thankfully. The stress of it all can start to wear on you if you're waiting in that visitation room too long... The first time I ever visited, there was some unforeseen problem on his pod and I waiting an hour and a half. By the time he finally made it out there, I had probably burned 1000 calories from bouncing my knees.

Because I travel so far (from Georgia to Texas), I'm allowed to see him for 4 hours 2 days in a row. Only one person per month can do this, the visit must be scheduled and approved ahead of time, and he is not allowed any other visits that week from anyone. Anyone who lives locally can visit for a 2 hour period once a week.

By the time 1 pm draws near on a typical workday for a 9-5er, 4 hours left of work seems like a lifetime and does, in my experience, drag by...inching along tortuously slow each minute feeling like an hour. The exact opposite was true and has always been true at Polunsky. Sitting across from Robert in that visitation cubicle the minutes pass like seconds, hours like minutes.

The conversation never stops, and there is always plenty of laughter and tears. This time was no exception to that.

I've been asked by other friends of his to detail what the visits were like, and I thought I'd give a rundown of what visiting Polunksy can be like. I've spent almost 7 years writing Robert and helping him on his case...fighting for his life. But, we've become close friends in that time. Some of what we talked about is personal--what's going on in our lives right now, our thoughts, feelings about people in our lives. He doesn't like personal things in his letters to be quoted for an audience, and I'm certainly not going to violate his sense of privacy by quoting his spoken words either. Above everything else, I value him as a friend and not just some project or social experiment.

What I will say is that we talked about his case. He has a strong Brady claim that has already been filed by the Texas Innocence Network attorneys. A Brady claim dates back to Brady v. Maryland (1963) in which the defendant in a court case was denied information by the prosecution. It was decided that this violated his right to due process in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Basically, this case precedent mandates that the defense be given access to all information the prosecution uses. This includes any deals that a jailhouse informant is given in trade for his or her testimony. The logic here is that if the jury knows about the deal, they can make an informed decision about how trustworthy that informant's testimony is.

In Robert's case, one of the main informants was given a deal that his defense was never informed of--the guy asked to be moved to a prison in his home state to be closer to his family. The prosecution offered to comply with this request but also admitted that if they did so, they would not be able to provide him any help in terms of parole. The informant refused to move and asked that the prosecution help with getting him paroled which they did. He was free not long after everything happened. On top of that, the state threatened to charge him with capital murder if he didn't testify. So, by testifying, he kept himself off death row and also walked out of prison a free man. He later committed suicide. This is one of the strongest Brady claims I've ever seen especially since many of the jurors felt this witness's testimony was the deciding factor in Robert's case. Remember that no DNA evidence links Robert to the crime and both blood and prints found at the scene are not a match for his or the victim's.... Hopefully the courts will allow this issues to be litigated. If so, he has a good chance of fighting things. There are other issues that were filed on as well, but this was the strongest and the one we discussed most.

I will also say that we probably talked about everything under the sun from philosophy to spirituality to psychology to my next tattoo and what he wants done with his body if he is executed. In 8 hours time, even though we touched on a myriad of frustrating topics, he never complained. He never said a negative word even while being a bit put-out with some people in his life. It's truly humbling to sit across from someone who has marks on his wrists from handcuffs, who is kept in a closet-sized cell 23 hours a day or more for something he didn't do, who is treated like scum but who still manages to be so fucking positive and never complain. He makes me a better person every day that I know him.

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