Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Prison With No Walls

Prison Burials a Gentle Touch in Punitive Systems:

On this day, [Kenneth Wayne] Davis’s funeral was one of seven at the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery, the largest prison graveyard in the country, 22 acres where thousands of inmates who were executed or died while incarcerated are buried. All of them went unclaimed by their relatives after they died, but the cemetery is not a ramshackle potter’s field. It is a quiet green oasis on a wide hill near the campus of Sam Houston State University, with rows of small crosses and headstones, at the center of which stand a decorative brick well and a white-painted altar bearing a cross. The last years of these inmates’ lives were spent under armed guard behind bars and barbed wire, but there is no fence along Bowers Boulevard here, and no one keeps watch.

Walking along the hill beneath the pine trees, stepping between the rows of hundreds of identical white crosses and tablet headstones, you think of Arlington National Cemetery. But if Arlington is for heroes, the Byrd cemetery is for villains.

An inmate crew from the nearby Walls Unit prison cleans the grounds, mows the grass and trims trees four days per week. The inmates dig the graves with a backhoe and shovels, serve as pallbearers and chisel the names on the headstones by hand using metal stencils and black paint. Wearing sunglasses, work boots and dirt-smeared white uniforms, they might have resembled painters were they not so solemn, holding their caps and gloves in their folded hands.

About 100 inmates are buried each year in ceremonies for which the state spends considerable time and money. Each burial costs Texas about $2,000. Often, as in Mr. Davis’s case, none of the deceased’s relatives attend, and the only people present are prison officials and the inmate workers.
Prison graves are also known as the less politically correct "Pauper's Graves".
Though all of those buried here were unclaimed by relatives, many family members fail to claim the bodies because they cannot afford burial expenses and want the prison agency to pay the costs instead. The same relatives who declined to claim the body will then travel to Huntsville to attend the state-paid services at the cemetery.

“I think everyone assumes if you’re in a prison cemetery you’re somehow the worst of the worst,” said Franklin T. Wilson, an assistant professor of criminology at Indiana State University who is writing a book about the cemetery. “But it’s more of a reflection of your socioeconomic status. This is more of a case of if you’re buried there, you’re poor.”
Thankfully, they are not buried in their prison whites.
In the ground in Huntsville, [Davis] was finally free of his prison uniform. The funeral home that handles inmates’ burials put him in dark pants, a white shirt and a tie.

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