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January 5, 2012

"Texas Prisoner Burials Are a Gentle Touch in a Punitive System"

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing New York Times article.  Here are excerpts:

Kenneth Wayne Davis died at 54 as not so much a man but a number: Inmate No. 327320. Mr. Davis was charged, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated for capital murder by the State of Texas after taking someone’s life on Nov. 19, 1977.  But when he died in November 2011, Texas seemed his only friend. His family failed to claim his body, so the state paid for his burial....

On this day, Mr. 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....

The state’s prison agency, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, has been the steward of the cemetery since the first inmates were buried there in the mid-1800s, maintaining and operating it in recent decades as carefully and respectfully as any religious institution might....

In a state known for being tough on criminals, where officials recently eliminated last-meal requests on death row, the Byrd cemetery has been a little-known counterpoint to the mythology of the Texas penal system.  One mile from the Walls Unit, which houses the state’s execution chamber, 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.

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.”

Prison officials have verified 2,100 inmates who are buried at the cemetery, but they say there may be additional graves.  Professor Wilson recently photographed every headstone and estimated that there were more than 3,000 graves.

January 5, 2012 at 09:19 AM | Permalink

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