Huntsville Prison Blues
A Small Texas Town is Crossroads of Lockdown and Freedom

 View an essay by photojournalist Andrew Lichtenstein

audio Listen to Dan Collison's story about Huntsville on All Things Considered.

Sept. 10, 2001 -- Texas has the largest prison system in America, with more than 150,000 prisoners behind bars. The headquarters of the state's Department of Criminal Justice is in Huntsville -- a small, conservative town that's home to nine state prisons.

Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Aurora Photos
A 19-year-old who just served a 18 months in prison for a parole violation waits for a bus at the Huntsville Greyhound station.
Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Aurora Photos

Click the image to view a slideshow of an essay by photojournalist Andrew Lichtenstein.

In the center of Huntsville is the Walls Unit. The oldest prison in Texas, it has gained notoriety in recent years as the location of Texas' famously-frequent executions. But another, less-known function of the Walls Unit is mustering out the Texas system's prisoners: Every day, more than 150 men are processed, paroled and released. That's where radio producer Daniel Collison and photojournalist Andrew Lichtenstein pick up the story -- or rather, many stories. For All Things Considered, they've woven those stories into a documentary called Huntsville Blues.

Lichtenstein, who created a photographic chronicle of prisoners' first steps outside The Walls, also wrote about what he saw there. Here, his essay:

By Andrew Lichtenstein

On the day they're released, a few people have relatives and friends anxiously waiting in front of the prison to pick them up. But the vast majority of ex-cons walk two blocks through town, to the Greyhound bus station. There, they cash a $50 check given to them by the State of Texas; inhale on their cigarettes (tobacco, although smuggled into the prisons, is banned); and stand around the station, waiting for afternoon and evening buses to "D-town" (Dallas), "H-town" (Houston) and other Texas destinations.

There is no better place to learn about the Texas prison system than Huntsville's Greyhound bus stop, a pavement slab without guards, bars, or barbed wire. At last, people who have been without a visitor for two, three, maybe even 10 years are free to talk, without fear of reprisal from guards, other inmates or the prison administration.

Texas Prison Facts:

• At the end of 1999 -- the latest year figures are available -- Texas led the nation with the largest number of people under criminal justice supervision, with 706,600 people either in prison, on parole or probation. That equals 5 percent of the adult population of the state.

• Although African-Americans represent 12 percent of the Texas population, they make up 44 percent of the total prison and jail population. One out of every four adult black men in Texas is under some form of criminal justice supervision.

• The Texas prison population has tripled since 1990, and rose 61.5 percent in the last five years of the 1990s.

• The Texas criminal justice system has grown so large that in July 2000, corrections officials ran out of six-digit numbers assigned to inmates, and officially created prisoner number 1,000,000.

• In 1998, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported that more than half of prisoners behind bars were being held for a non-violent crime.

• More than one out of every five inmates in Texas prisons are serving time for drug-related charges.

Source: Texas Department of Criminal Justice, The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics

Surprisingly, there is very little jubilation or celebration. The mood at the bus station is more often one of nervousness and reflection. For most men just getting out, the joy of freedom is often tempered by the anxieties of what to do next.

Occasionally there is a gangster in the crowd, a violent felon who is leaving one prison for another, to continue the gang wars on the streets of East San Antonio or Houston. But the vast majority of people walking to the bus station are non-violent offenders. Conservative farm kids from small Texas towns wait for the buses with poor blacks and Mexican-Americans from the cities.

You can see in their faces how the years behind bars have changed them. Many of the young ex-cons seem traumatized by their recent experiences in a prison system characterized by organized prison gangs and harsh drug-sentencing laws. Four years for a minor marijuana charge, six years for being caught with a dirty drug spoon, seven years for cashing an $85 bum check; an angry girlfriend who called the parole office, a failed urine text, a third Driving While Intoxicated conviction. The stories behind their imprisonment pile upon each other so fast, each one more personal (and petty) than the last.

Among those recently released here, there is one universally accepted belief. If you have money, they say, you can beat the time -- but if you're broke and down on your luck, the Department of Criminal Justice will grind you up and spit you back out, just like the six-digit number that you have become.

Other Resources

Aurora Photos is photojournalist Andrew Lichtenstein's agency.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has its own Web site, complete with death row statistics.