Interview: Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian discuss Death Row in America

With In This Timeless Time: Living and Dying on Death Row in America, Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian explore life on Death Row in Texas and in other states, as well as the convoluted and arbitrary judicial processes that populate all Death Rows. They document the capriciousness of capital punishment and capture the day-to-day experiences of Death Row inmates in the official “nonperiod” between sentencing and execution. Included with the stark and powerful book is a DVD of Jackson and Christian’s 1979 documentary film, Death Row. It was during fieldwork for the film that the authors took the photos and conducted the interviews in this book.

This Thursday, April 19, Jackson and Christian will sign books at an event in Durham at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, our publishing partner for the book. Visit the CDS website for event details and to see a slideshow of images from the book. Thursday’s event is in conjunction with a reception for Full Color Depression: First Kodachromes from America’s Heartland, an exhibition curated by Bruce Jackson.

In the following interview, the authors discuss their unprecedented access to one of the least accessible institutions in America, Death Row.


Q: Many readers will remember your book, Death Row, published in 1980. How does this book differ from that work?

Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian, authors of In This Timeless Time: Living and Dying on Death Row in AmericaA: Death Row was a snapshot of one Death Row at one specific moment in time. The work was done after the Supreme Court said in Gregg v. Georgia (1976) that the states could resume executions (which had been suspended since Furman v. Georgia, (1972) but before anyone other than Gary Gilmore in Idaho, who wanted to be executed and refused appeals that might have tested the Idaho capital punishment law, was put to death (1977). Death Row was a book about men living in double limbo: first, waiting to find out if Texas would actually begin killing again, and second, waiting to find out if and when they would be among those put to death. The book included 24 photographs, badly printed, none of them with a caption. The book is primarily their voices.

In This Timeless Time begins in the same place but it tells a far more extensive and complex story. It documents Texas Death Row far more fully than the earlier book: it has 113 beautifully printed duotone photos, and all of those photos are accompanied by explanatory text, sometimes of considerable length. Instead of just showing those men as they were then and printing in another section their words about their condition then, this book tells what happened to each of them: who was executed, who got commuted, who was paroled and who, after more than two decades on the Row, was found to be innocent. 

Then we examine the entire practice of capital punishment in America since Gregg. We look at patterns of executions, the major arguments for continuing them, and the major arguments for abandoning the death penalty as a social experiment that has failed miserably (some of the people we cite in that section are Supreme Court justices who formerly supported the death penalty).

And finally, we write about our own role in all of this: how we came to do the work, what problems we had doing it, what ethical issues we encountered. Most of the time studies of complex social issues are presented as if the people doing the studies weren’t even there, as if some kind of neutral intelligence produced the book. There is no neutral intelligence, and we thought it important for anyone reading the first two parts of In This Timeless Time to get, in the third part, the people telling the story.

We also included as one of the appendices Justice Thurgood Marshall’s eloquent dissent in the Supreme Court 1976 decision that allowed the killing to resume, Gregg v. Georgia. That dissent is 36 years old, but it is as right now as it was then—only now we have far more evidence to support or endorse Justice Marshall’s position.

So the two books start in the same physical place, but are very different in all important regards. Most simply, Death Row looked at one place in detail, while In This Timeless Time uses that one place as the beginning of an examination of the entire system and moral structure—such as it is—undergirding it.

Q: Why is it time to revisit this story?

A: Public attitudes toward capital punishment are shifting: fewer and fewer people have confidence in it; fewer juries are selecting death rather than life in prison; and more and more death sentences are being overturned. So many capital cases were found to be dirty a while back that the governor of Illinois commuted the death sentence of every condemned prisoner the state had. Texas not long ago executed a man who was, according to experts who examined the evidence, put to death for a crime that never even occurred. The states are broke and executions are extremely expensive (it costs far more to execute someone than to keep him or her behind bars for life). And errors are irremediable. It’s bad enough when we learn someone has been sent to prison for someone else’s crime; we can’t give the stolen years back, but some compensation can be offered; there is someone to say “We’re sorry” to. There is no compensation or apology to the dead and more and more cases of doubtful guilt surface every year. There is a great deal more questioning of the need for capital punishment, the inequity in its application, and the moral cost it is to the rest of us. We thought, therefore, this was a good time to expand the conversation with some new information and analysis.

Q: How is Death Row defined?

A: It is the special prison where men and women under sentence of death are kept between the time a judge pronounces the death sentence and the case is resolved by execution, commutation, reversal, natural death, murder, or exoneration. It is the only place in a prison where time does not count. (It counts to the prisoners: they get old there; but it doesn’t count to the justice system except when someone’s sentence is reduced.) That’s because all other prisoners are sentenced to a term of time (which is why they call it “doing time”), but Death Row is not the place where the condemned prisoners serves their sentence; it’s just the place they wait to learn if it will be carried out. It is rarely even in the same building where the execution occurs. In Texas, for example, the Death House, where the condemned spend their last morning, and the killing chamber, are more than 30 miles from the prison where the Row is located.

Q: You note that executions are swift (for the most part), but Death Row limbo is long—a decade on the average and sometimes far longer. Why is that?

A: Appeals. Most condemned prisoners have court appointed lawyers who fit the work in between better-paying work, or volunteer lawyers who are terribly overloaded with cases. The courts are very slow to respond. Sometimes a lawyer will submit an appeal and it will be years before the court rules on it. Sometimes a federal court ruling on an appeal in one state raises issues about similar cases in other states, so a case that seemed almost closed starts all over again. Many times there are new trials. Conservatives have limited the number of appeals a condemned prisoner can make and tried to prevent appeals from being made even when new evidence suggests the first trial was critically tainted. They argue that the whole process should be sped up. But if the cost of that acceleration is more injustice in a system already rife with injustice, the public gains nothing by giving in to those demands.

Q: What sets In This Timeless Time apart from existing literature on American prisons?

A: It is personal and specific (it deals with individual human beings in a particular prison); it is historical and analytical (it details the history of capital punishment in American over the past three decades, as well as the various court decisions that have had an impact on the ways it has been applied); it is ethical (it confronts the moral claims to justified killing); and it is autobiographical (it tells how we did the work, what work we did, and what problems we had in the course of it). And it is grounded in research Bruce began in Texas prisons nearly 50 years ago. Most books about prison deal with only one of these realms of inquiry; we know of no book that deals with all of them, and which in the process offers more than 113 duotone photographs and a DVD that allows the reader to see the prison and individuals the words are about.

Q: Your book has a three-part structure. Why did you choose to organize it in this way?

A: We first wanted to show what one death row in America and its residents looked like so the second part of the book would not be abstract. Academics and appellate courts argue about abstract things, but in practice, the criminal justice system does things to real people in real places in real time. Real people are in those death row cells; real people are put to death in those killing rooms. The photographs show that, and the notes to the photographs comment on some of them and let the reader know what has happened to the individuals depicted in them since the photographs were taken. But that specific death row takes meaning in a much larger context, one involving a great deal of jurisprudence and law. So the second part of the book tries to show the system of which that death row in Texas is a part, and simultaneously it tries to let the Texas example illuminate the rest of the system. One of the key parts of this book is a listing of all the current justifications for the death penalty and our reasons for finding every one of them fatally flawed. Then we thought we owed the reader some information about who was presenting this information. We set out to examine the death penalty; we thought readers should have a sense of who was doing that work and how it came to be done.

Q: How did you get access to Death Row, a place from which outsiders are usually excluded?

A: Bruce began doing research in Texas prisons in 1964, when he was a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. Several of his books were based entirely or in large part on that research. In 1978, he was invited to be Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at the Criminal Justice Institute, which is part of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. While he was there he was introduced to the director of the prison system—James Estelle—who had replaced George Beto, who had been director when he’d done his work in the 1960s. Bruce said something about not intending to do any more prison work and Estelle said that any time Bruce wanted to do research in Texas prisons, he’d be welcome on the same terms he’d been accorded in the 1960s: free and open access to anything. Bruce didn’t think anything would come of that exchange and Estelle probably didn’t either; it was just talk.

During that trip, Bruce was asked if he’d be willing to testify in a federal case about changes in the prison system from 1960s. He said he would, but he’d have to visit all the prisons first. So in 1978, he did that. Those visits included Death Row, which Bruce had always avoided previously.

That summer, at an Institute of the American West conference in Sun Valley, the two of us met and spent some time with Carey McWilliams, Bruce’s longtime editor at The Nation magazine. Bruce told Carey about his visit to Death Row. Bruce said someone should make a movie about the place because it was a prison like no other. In all other prisons, he said, time counted; in Death Row, it just passed. To an outsider, it looked like any other prison, but deep down, existentially, it was very different. Carey told us both that we had to make the movie. We weren’t moviemakers, we told him. He said we had to do it. “You’ve got the access!” he said. He was right. We did have the access and such access is very rare. We don’t have it now. We tried to revisit Death Row in Texas recently and were stonewalled totally. So we borrowed some money, we got a few grants, Bruce got an Independent Filmmakers’ grant from the American Film Institute, and we wrote James Estelle and told him we were taking him up on his offer. He was probably as surprised as we were at that letter. But he’d given his word about free access for us in front of other people and he honored it. Except for one ugly incident involving an assistant warden and Diane, no one got in our way the whole time we were there.

We knew then that we were going to do a book and a film. You tell stories differently in books and in films and we wanted to do both. So that’s what we did: the film, Death Row, was released in 1979, and the book, which had the same title, came out the following spring.

As time passed by we more and more felt that we had done only the first half of the job, that there was a more complex book that needed doing. Death Row is about a moment in time; In This Timeless Time is about what happened, and the issues involved in what happened since. And, happily, we were able to include in In This Timeless Time a DVD of the 1979 film, which brings the whole thing together. It only took 33 years.

Q: You’re a husband and wife team. Tell me about your collaboration on this project.

A: We collaborate a lot. For the last 12 years we’ve taught a University at Buffalo film class at a downtown theater in Buffalo that is open to the public. We’ve put on conferences and symposia together; we’ve done several documentary films together.

We knew that if Diane worked on the Row it would disrupt the place. Bruce could go down there and sit in cells and talk to people and go into the day room when the recreation groups went in there, but no way in the world would Texas authorities let a woman wander around Death Row without a guard or two in constant attendance. And that would have killed the whole project. No one would ever get to relax. So Bruce worked on the Row with a cameraman and an assistant, plus a convict trusty assistant, and Diane worked in the visiting room down the hall. She’d do long one-on-one interviews, sometimes three or four hours long. Bruce would do the shorter interviews you do in film, though sometimes he’d sit in someone’s cell and they’d just talk and record for an hour or two. He also did the photographs that are the first part of In This Timeless Time.

Each night we’d go to the motel, set the batteries to the cameras and recorders charging, reload the film magazines, and talk about what we’d learned that day. Sometimes Bruce would say, “I met a guy you might want to talk to for a while,” or Diane would suggest Bruce might want to ask certain people when they were on camera. We both started out with the same question: “If you could talk to people out there about what it’s like being on Death Row, what would you say? What would you want them to know?” That would invariably lead to other things.

Q: The events in In This Timeless Time primarily take place on a Death Row in Ellis, Texas. How similar is it to other Death Rows?

A: In the core, au fond, as the French say, they’re all the same. Some are a lot meaner and nastier than others—Texas now is much meaner and nastier than it was when we were there because the prisoners are under far more restrictive conditions. They can’t talk to anybody, they don’t see anybody, they can’t watch television, most of them can’t even listen to radio. It’s really cruel, gratuitously cruel. Some other Death Rows are like that; some are more relaxed.

But the basic condition of Death Row, all of them, is the pendency, the waiting in that timeless time for other people to decide whether you’re to live or you’re to die, sometimes going years between when you ask a question and when you get the answer. The whole purpose of every Death Row in America, the only purpose, is to keep men and women alive while the government decides whether or not its employees will, without anger of any kind, calmly put them to death. That’s why in this book we were comfortable showing and writing about one Death Row in detail, then extrapolating to all of them.

Q: Why do you think that most of the men that you interviewed decided to trust you? What kind of relationships did you have with your subjects and how did you build rapport?

A: A lot of reasons. There were some moments of real anxiety and danger, which we discuss in the third section.  One factor was, one of the trusties who worked on the Row had read an article by Bruce about Ellis prison—which is where Death Row was then located—in Texas Monthly. That was a year before we went down to do the film. He really liked the article and he told a lot of men on the Row he thought Bruce was fair and objective. Bruce also brought a few of his prison books with him and the first night gave them to the man in the first cell in the third tier. By next morning, the books were in the end cell of the first tier. Several men decided to trust us because of that. By the end of our time there, there were very few men on the Row who wouldn’t talk to Diane and her recorder or Bruce and his film crew.

Some did it because they liked and trusted us. Some did it because they thought they had nothing to lose and might get something out of it, some connection outside that might help. Some did it because they were bored. Death Row is an incredibly boring place to live. The first few days were kind of difficult, but then we had more work that we could handle. At the end, only two men (so far as we knew) wouldn’t talk to us, both for legal reasons. We always took that trust from the others as a serious responsibility. In a lot of ways, it was a collaborative project. One prisoner on the Row, after at first being very hostile, decided to take part in the film and the book. He told Bruce that the two of us couldn’t give the outside world a fair picture of that place unless they were fully engaged in it.

Q: Why did they agree to be filmed and photographed?

A: They trusted us. They were bored and we were a diversion. They wanted the outside world to know about the awful world they inhabited for years on end. A lot of reasons.

Q: The capriciousness of capital punishment is a primary theme of In This Timeless Time. Could you please give some examples of what you mean by this?

A: Only a small fraction of the men and women convicted of murder wind up on Death Row. With only a few exceptions, getting a life sentence or a long sentence rather than the death penalty has nothing to do with the seriousness of the crime or the individual’s previous criminal history. Only one man on Death Row when we were there had retained counsel—a lawyer he’d paid for; he was eventually released. All the others had court appointed lawyers. Some of those lawyers were good lawyers who worked hard; some—this is documented—slept during key parts of the trials. Everyone on Death Row in American state prisons now is there for murder, but far more murderers are in those same prisons serving life sentences, or term sentences. What is the difference between life and death? It has nothing to do with the crime or the criminal. It has far more to do with local politics (does the prosecutor think he can get some political advantage going for death rather than life or a term of years?), money (can the accused afford a lawyer and investigators who will do the same kind of work the prosecutor gets done automatically?), the location (most death sentences are handed down and carried out in the south, but not uniformly; in Texas, for example, a preponderance of the death sentences come from just three counties). And, finally, it depends on the composition of the appellate courts the year a particular case comes up: some panels are sticklers for justice; some are sticklers for going by the current rules. Sometimes justice and the rules are incompatible, and in capital cases, lives hang in the balance.

Q: What single fact about Death Row presented in In This Timeless Time do you think will surprise people most?

A: That the statistical studies purporting to prove that executions reduce murders are lousy studies based on bad scholarship and epidermal analysis.

Q: In This Timeless Time includes a DVD of your 1979 documentary film, Death Row. How does this added component enhance the reader’s experience and understanding of capital punishment?

A: It gives readers an opportunity readers of books almost never have: an hour in which they can look at the individuals and physical environment, hence having an opportunity to decide if the authors got it right or not.

Q: How has the weakened economy impacted death penalty cases?

A: Nearly all death sentences come out of state courts, not federal courts. Capital cases are very expensive to prosecute. It’s not just the cost of trial: there is also the cost of dealing with the appeals, some of which go on for decades. Some states provide local prosecutors extra budgets for capital cases. Even so, the states and counties are all hurting now, so prosecutors are far less likely to go through the expense of a capital trial—which might not result in a death sentence anyway—when they can use the same evidence to prosecute the same defendant at far less cost.

Q: You conclude that the criminal justice system has “failed to make a case for death.” How so?

A: We spend a lot of time in part three of the book discussing the various rationales offered for capital punishment. None of them holds up and we say why and how. We show how their arguments have failed. The burden for justifying execution shouldn’t be on those of us who say the state shouldn’t be in the business of putting people to death; it should be on those who argue that it should. Specifically, there is no evidence that capital punishment deters potential felons any more than a long prison sentence. Since far more murderers are doing time than are under a sentence of death, there can be no argument about eye-for-an-eye, because that’s not what we’re doing most of the time anyway. So the only people who get sent to death row are the poor, the unlucky, those who were convicted in a county that loved the death penalty more than the adjoining county that didn’t. Putting someone in prison is a serious social act; putting someone to death is exponentially more serious. We shouldn’t be doing it unless there is a very good reason for doing do. As so many Supreme Court justices have pointed out (some after having endorsed the death penalty earlier in their careers), no one has come up with a good reason for this kind of killing.