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TEXAS DEATH ROW ESCAPE

A natural response to racism & brutality

By Gloria Rubac

Houston

Shortly after midnight on Nov. 27, seven men awaiting execution in Texas made a run for freedom from the Ellis Unit prison in Huntsville.

Six were stopped by a hail of automatic rifle gunfire by tower guards. Officials say none were injured. But reporters and family members have been barred from seeing the men since their capture.

The six are Gustavo Garcia, Henry Dunn, James Clayton, Howard Guidry, Eric Cathey and Ponchai Wilkerson.

The seventh prisoner--Martin Gerule--made it over two 10-foot perimeter fences topped with razor wire. He has since eluded over 500 law-enforcement officers, dog teams and helicopters.

The seven are all African Americans and Latinos.

In Houston, members of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty are sending a delegation of community activists and human-rights leaders to meet with the death-row warden.

"We know the conditions on death row are inhumane on a good day," said TCADP organizer Joanne Gavin, "and we are concerned about the health of the six men who attempted to escape. We want to determine whether force was used by prison guards to extract information about their escape."

Since the bid for freedom, all 1,700 Ellis Unit prisoners have been locked in their cells 24 hours a day. Visits and interviews are being denied.

"We demand that these men be allowed to visit their families and friends, as well as attorneys and doctors not employed by the prison system," said Anthony Freddie, a TCADP advisory board member and coordinator of the Gary Graham/shaka Sankofa Justice Coalition.

"There must be no retaliation or retribution."

Texas hell-holes

The Ellis Unit--one of seven prisons in the Huntsville area--is 60 miles north of Houston in the East Texas piney woods.

Texas imprisons almost 150,000 people. The state has executed 159 men and one woman since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. This rate is higher than any other state in the United States.

Six executions are scheduled for December. A Canadian citizen is slated to die in Texas on Dec. 10--International Human Rights Day.

The execution of activist Shaka Sankofa (Gary Graham) has been set for Jan. 11. His supporters are mobilizing to halt it.

Texas prisons are hell-holes. In 1980, a federal judge declared Texas prisons unconstitutional because of rampant brutality, lack of health care, overcrowding and denial of access to the courts.

This ruling resulted from the successful Ruiz case. It won a court order calling for many reforms. Some were made, although prison officials dragged their feet.

But there are some things that haven't changed one bit in Texas prisons: harassment, degradation, humiliation, racism and guard brutality.

Much is being made in the media about how this is the first successful escape from the Texas death row since 1934. Then, Raymond Hamilton, a member of the Bonnie and Clyde gang, escaped from the Walls Unit in Huntsville.

But the media are ignoring why the seven men risked their lives in an attempt at freedom. The answer should be obvious: racism, guard harassment, brutality and the racist Texas killing machine.

`You want to survive'

Workers World spoke with death-row prisoner Nanon Williams, who was in a Houston jail for a hearing on his case, about the Huntsville escape.

Williams knows a great deal about the conditions that death-row prisoners face in Texas. He was a juvenile when arrested on capital murder charges. Williams has finally found a lawyer who is pursuing his claims of innocence.

Williams says that in December 1996 Warden Staples viciously gassed him with pepper spray for 45 minutes. The warden was wearing a gas mask.

Williams was attacked after he questioned why he was being moved to another cell.

The gassing and beating was so severe that his friends were not sure if he was alive when he was taken away on a stretcher. His head had been slammed on the concrete floor, leaving behind a pool of blood. Blood was running from his eyes.

Two years later he has not regained complete use of one eye.

Williams talked about the men who tried to flee Huntsville. "They were trying to escape the grip of oppression," he said. "Not only are we living day by day under sentence of death, but there's the harsh conditions, the physical and mental abuse, the torture.

"When you live under such repressive conditions, you want to lash out at the system. And you want to survive. You want to live.

"Hitting the fence and getting away is gaining your physical freedom. Or hitting the fence and getting shot down brings you freedom from the system through death.

"We live with a lot of mixed emotions on death row. We live in a desperate situation. Can anyone blame a man for wanting to escape a system that wants to kill him?"

Racist killing machine

The use of the death penalty in the United States is racist.

It has been since the days of slavery when Black people were considered property by slave owners, through the years of lynchings and Jim Crow laws. From the rope to the electric chair to the needle, state executions have become an extension of lynchings.

And the death penalty is anti-poor. Ninety percent of those on death row could not afford a lawyer at the time of their trial.

At best, court-appointed lawyers are not given the resources to provide an adequate investigation or defense. At worst, they are incompetent and uncaring.

Seventy-five men and women since 1976 have been convicted of capital crimes, sentenced to death and later found innocent. This is roughly one for every seven prisoners who have been executed.

The entire criminal-justice system in this country represents the interests of the wealthy ruling class. It has no right to imprison and execute poor and working people.

A statement from the Houston branch of Workers World Party concluded: "The men and women locked away in the concentration camps called prisons need the support of the entire progressive movement. We support those who slave in the fields picking cotton and crops at the prison plantations. And we support those who seek freedom from slavery and oppression by whatever means necessary.

"Fight to abolish the death penalty. Free Mumia Abu-Jamal and the other 3,500 on death rows in the U.S.

"Solidarity with Martin Gerule's quest for freedom! Solidarity with Garcia, Dunn, Clayton, Guidry, Cathey and Wilkerson!"

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