Back in May 2015 I performed an extract of The Road to Huntsville at First Bite, which is produced by China Plate. I was fortunate enough to be selected for one of the two commissions they offer in order to develop work into a full and finished piece.
The idea came about after watching a documentary about death row, which featured pen pals who become friends and potentially wives.
As with most things I end up writing about, I found it difficult firstly to come to terms with how those men and women live their lives knowing the state will put them to death. I couldn’t begin to contemplate how it must feel to count the days you have left on this earth, stomach your last meal and have the warden tell you, “Its time”, before walking to the gurney where you will breathe your last breath. Secondly who are the people who seek out love with those who have committed such terrible crimes that the state sees the only fitting punishment is death?
Months of research was undertaken before I began to form the beginnings of The Road to Huntsville. I knew little about the death penalty but I quickly discovered Texas executes the most prisoners and has some of the harshest conditions. Death row, where the inmates are housed, is in Livingston in Texas, whereas the death chamber where the inmate is executed is 45 miles away in Huntsville.
Huntsville is a small city based in the east of Texas with a population of just under 40,000, 25% of which are behind bars. Home to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) it is labelled a ‘company town’ as most of Huntsville’s residents are employed by the TDCJ. Situated in downtown Huntsville the prison, nicknamed the ‘Walls’ Unit, is the oldest state prison in Texas and is also home to the USA’s busiest execution chamber.
I also discovered hundreds of websites specifically for writing to prisoners around the world. Those wishing to correspond can be very specific about who they want to write to, choosing everything from location, to length of sentence to star sign.
I don’t want you to think for a minute I underestimate the crimes that lead the inmates to death row or the victims and their families they devastate with their actions. I am more than aware this is a very emotive subject area, one in which many people have very strong opinions about. While the death penalty in the UK was abolished in 1964 the subject of capital punishment continues to be important, with the British Government committed to campaigning against the death penalty internationally. Ongoing discussion on the state’s right to commit murder is one of fundamental human rights, and has resonance and relevance to audiences in countries with and without the death penalty.