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
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
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
"There must be no retaliation or retribution."
The Ellis Unit--one of seven prisons in the Huntsville
area--is 60 miles north of Houston in the East Texas piney
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
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
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
`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
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
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,
"When you live under such repressive conditions, you want to
lash out at the system. And you want to survive. You want to
"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
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
And the death penalty is anti-poor. Ninety percent of those
on death row could not afford a lawyer at the time of their
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
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
"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
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