Warden: Prison life and death from the inside out, by Jim Willett and Ron Rozelle. (Bright Sky Press, 2004)
Ron Rozelle decided to write the life and times of his college roommate, Jim Willett, to tell the story of a Texas prison warden who oversaw 89 executions, the prison farm riot, the Carrasco siege, and years and years of citizens who had to be separated from society. It’s quite a tale.
What caught my attention, and I suppose now my memory, was the personal touch of Warden Willett and his interest in an almost-illiterate inmate who shared the same passion for flowers as Willett. By weaving encounters of Mr. Crump into the yearly routine, Rozelle was able to put a human face on a man whose job is ‘other.’
Willett rose from rookie guard to command different prisons, but he is most famous for his time at the Walls, the death-row unit. He has mixed feelings about the men of the Row, and mixed feelings about their fate. A firm believer in justice, in the judicial system, and in following the law as required, Willett nevertheless confesses that there has to be a better way.
Short encounters with other prison officials offer yet another glimpse into the hidden lives of prison officials. Readers will not be amazed to learn that they are humans, with human histories and feelings and attitudes, but perhaps you might begin to understand a bit better why these officials present such a solid, unwavering face to the public. Their job isn’t glamorous. It isn’t well paid. It is filled with unhappiness and even fear. And the headlines make it difficult for their lives and the lives of their families.
An aspect that caught my attention is the difference between units filled with old-timers– adult inmates, and units filled with kids 18-21. The first group generally knows the rules, does what is required, and needs sleep at lights-out. The younger ones seem to never need sleep, never understand that a rule is simply a rule, that officials will indeed win any argument, eventually. They fight. They make noises. They defy orders. Thus if the juvenile population in Pack II has an opening for a guard or officer who has an opportunity to work with experienced inmates instead, he or she will never go to Pack II. But Willett went to Pack II. The senior warden taught him how to approach the 1000 inmates who one night rioted and burned mattresses, abandoned their cells, created a deafening racket. Warden Drewry walked through those halls and insisted the young men get back in the cells and bunks. They did. The 40 guards had not been able to get control. That senior warden did, through force of personality.
A personality trait that came through over and over was Warden Willettt’s sympathy for the individual case. He couldn’t change the law or rules, though he might bend one if it helped an individual family. Such was the case with an impoverished family that had driven 12 hours to pick up their paroled son, only to learn that courts and attorneys had entangled their son in more days Inside. The warden gently bent a rule that day, allowing them to stay and visit on a non-visit day. He often saw parents “good, decent folks who life had just dealt a bad hand, and who had served every minute of a judge’s sentence outside the prison, waiting for their sons to return. I blame a lot of crime on bad parenting, but I didn’t blame the parents waiting at the tables. Television, maybe, or a bad crowd—something else had gotten hold of their boy.”
Willett’s story is first-person, as if he is talking to an old friend about the chapters of his life within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system. He was—his old roommate. Would the story have been different from a reporter’s perspective, with hard questions? Probably. But this is the tale of Jim Willett, and it’s his story to tell. I am glad I read it because I can now actually see prison officials in a different way, a fuller way, a more human way, than I did before opening the book.