Friday, May 14, 2010

Behind Prison Walls: Inside Ellis Unit One

by Donna Pendergast

That old white haired judge in Dallas
Didn't pay my story no mind
They're taking me down to Huntsville
I'm bringing in a load of time
--Merle Haggard

Huntsville, Texas, is the execution capital of the world and the headquarters of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Huntsville has become a metaphor for incarceration and Death Row issues. Hearing the word conjures up visions of chain gangs, prison riots, and Death Row. Immortalized in books, movies and songs, Huntsville is a metaphor for all things prison-related, and its very existence has served as a threat for generations of Texan school children who taunted each other about being sent to Huntsville for bad behavior.

Being a Midwestern girl from Michigan, Huntsville was not a place that I ever expected to see--especially not from the inside. That all changed in early 2004, when I found myself on a plane with a colleague and two Michigan State Police troopers. We were headed to Huntsville to attempt to interview serial murderer Coral Eugene Watts (right) prior to making a charging decision on a cold case. He was suspected of committing that crime in Michigan in 1979. The reason we were reviewing the cold case is a long and fascinating story (watch for it to be covered in a future post).

Arriving in Texas, I quickly learned that Huntsville is a town with six separate prisons within the city limits and near the actual town. Our intended destination was Ellis Unit One, on the outskirts. Ellis Unit One is a maximum security facility where the average prisoner's sentence exceeds 40 years. The prison, which houses up to 2,400 male prisoners, was the site of Texas Death Row until shortly after a major escape attempt in 1999. Even before the escape attempt, prison officials were busy relocating Death Row to the Polunsky Unit in West Livingston, Texas. After the escape attempt, officials sped up the move, completing it in 2000. The Death Row transfer, performed under heavy security, was the largest transfer of condemned prisoners in history.

While it may have lost Death Row, Ellis Unit One has lost none of its formidable cachet. A foreboding view on the horizon as one travels the field-lined road leading up to the prison, Ellis Unit One makes its presence known, even from a distance. As I saw the building looming up ahead, the stark reality that I was soon entering those walls sunk in. The thought was disquieting, to say the least.

After parking in a public parking lot, we walked to a gate and flashed credentials up to guards in a sentry tower (pictured above), standing watch heavily armed. The guards had been advised of our anticipated arrival, and we were accompanied by a high-ranking representative with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, so we were buzzed through the gates quickly and allowed to start toward the prison facility itself. Inside the doors we had to sign a log, turn in personal effects, and put on identification badges handed to us through a window in the foyer area. We were then allowed to proceed through multiple sets of doors that clanged shut behind us with an eerie sound of finality.

This was a first for me. I've been in various jails plenty of times before to interview witnesses, but this was a prison; different--and not in a comfortable way. Even accompanied by two police officers, a male colleague and the corrections official, I was still uneasy and ready to get down to business as quickly as possible so we could get out as quickly as possible.

Prison officials had cleared room for us in a small office used for storage. My fellow assistant attorney general and I hunkered down there while the two troopers were taken and seated in a small adjacent conference room, where the interview was set to take place. Prison officials had set up hidden cameras in the conference room, transmitting back to a television set in our makeshift office. That let us watch as the interview  it took place.

While we waited for guards to transport Watts to area, I needed to use the restroom. I was directed to a bathroom in the infirmary, requiring a journey through several halls. As I headed there alone, I cautiously eyed the trustee inmates working openly and seemingly on their own in the hallways just steps from me. I found myself moving quickly, eager to return to the relative security of my office sanctuary. I would have been moving even faster had I known then that another of the Huntsville prisons had once been the site of a seige by three armed prisoners who took multiple hostages using weapons smuggled inside in a ham and  canned peaches. When the siege ended eleven days later, two of the armed gunmen and two civilian hostages -- a teacher and a librarian -- were dead.

There was a bit of levity during the wait for Watts once I got back to the storeroom. My colleague had pulled aside the shade on small window in the corner of the room and was peering outside. He announced there were a couple hundred naked men right outside the window. Certain that he was trying to get my goat and make me even more uncomfortable than I already was, I said, "Sure there are," as I bounded over to the window and pulled aside the shade. I got an eyeful. There were indeed some hundred-plus naked men standing directly outside the window hosing down after coming in from the fields, where they raise crops for the prison. In my haste to close the shade, I tripped over a box while my colleague laughed hysterically, saying "I told you so." To think I thought I was uncomfortable before that.

The interview with Watts was cordial but provided no answers. He played cat and mouse with the troopers for a couple of hours before announcing that he wanted to end the interview and be led away. I breathed a sigh of relief as we passed through the barbed wire fence. We were done--or so I thought. We gave it our best shot but were still going to charge the case even without a statement from Watts.

As it turned out, we weren't quite done yet. While enjoying a relaxing late lunch at a genuine Texas BBQ joint, we received a call from the warden. Watts had decided he wanted to talk. We hightailed it back to the prison and went through the same complicated entrance procedure. With insufficient time to reassemble the camera setup, my colleague and I waited and paced in the infirmary while the troopers went back into the conference room to reinterview Watts. It was all for naught. In true serial murderer style, he again toyed with the officers. After an hour or so, we left with no more information than the first time around.

When I say I've done my time in Huntsville, it means something different than it does for most. Nonetheless, it was more than enough time for me. As many who are finally let out those exit doors surely say: "I'm not going back."

Last night I dreamed that I woke up with straps across my chest
And something cold and black pullin' through my lungs
‘N even Jesus couldn't save me though I know he did his best
But he don't live on Ellis Unit One
--Steve Earle, "Ellis Unit One"

Statements made in this post are my own and are not intended to reflect the views, thoughts or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.


Linda Pischke said...

Very interesting website. Will visit again.

Janet Braunstein said...

What a story!

California Girl said...

Last night I dreamed that I woke up with straps across my chest
And something cold and black pullin' through my lungs
‘N even Jesus couldn't save me though I know he did his best
But he don't live on Ellis Unit One

Steve Earle -Ellis Unit One Lyrics

Janet Braunstein said...

Great quote! Love Steve Earle. Mind if we stick it in the post?

Donna Pendergast said...

That is a great quote. Steve Earle weote that song for Dead Man Walking. I originally started my post with those exact same lyric but changed to the Merle Haggard lyric because I wanted to talk about the whole metaphor of Huntsville. I couldn't find a way to work in the lyrics----thanks for finding a way to do
it Janet

B.Allen- O.B. Ellis Unit said...

I work on Ellis Unit One. I am a 25yr old Female,and I work AD SEG (Administrative Segregation) . Every day that I get to go home from through the razor wire and through the gates I thank god for every night my daughters have with me. For a female that is not use to the life style of prison it would be nerve wrecking I would think, just as you have so very nicely and delicately stated. You have writin your accounts of the Ellis Unit so gracefuly, I think that if you got an eyeful just from your brife walk through than you should sit dow nwith the female OFFICERS of Ellis Unit one. We would be more than happy to give you all the inside and emotions, feelings and thoughts that we can. You dont know what true fear is untill you walk into a AD SEG block as a female with only a stab vest so proudly being worn. Thank you for your account

B.Allen- O.B. Ellis Unit said...

(cont from above)

I have worked as corrections officer since I was 18, and this is all I know. I love my job, but at the same time Corrections officers are not always given a good name. We are not guards but Officers up holding the penal system. Therefor we are Corrections Officers. As a female corrections officer, my husband (who works the same unit in ad seg with me) and daughters fear for me at times. Some may say it is selfish of me to put my self in danger every day, but I see it as a respectable career that my daughters can be proud that their mother gave them the type of life style that I have doing what I love. As a female behind male bars, I see more and hear more than I should. But at the same time, I cant see myself doing anything else but going behind the loud cling of the steel doors and gates and into another world every day. While inside the prison we call the out side the "freeworld" yes all one word. Like I said if you ever wanna get a real insight from a real female corrections officer I would love to give you what ever info I can to give corrections officers a good name.

Anonymous said...

B. Allen
Please send your emailaddress to

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a heck of a follow up post hope to hear from you. I'm having a hard time signing in with my account---that's why this is coming up anonymous

Donna P

B.Allen- O.B. Ellis Unit said...

I have sent you an e-mail, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Anonymous said...

that is so cool that you work in a male prison! You go girl!

Anonymous said...

I am getting ready to go through the training academy and will be assigned to the Ellis Unit. I am absolutely excited about it and cannot wait to be a part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.