From Homemade Weapons To Inmate Art, An Inside Look At Life Behind Bars

Sep 6, 2016
Originally published on September 6, 2016 11:03 am

It's no wonder that in Texas, home to the largest prison system in the nation and the busiest death chamber in the developed world, there's a museum about its prisons.

To find it just look for the sign with the ball and chain on Interstate 45, north of Houston.

Jim Willett, the Texas Prison Museum director, is not your typical museum docent. His deep knowledge of the artifacts of state-ordered punishment comes from the years he oversaw the looming, red-brick penitentiary in downtown Huntsville known as The Walls.

"Prior to coming here I worked for 30 years for the prison system and was a warden for the last 8 years I was there," he says.

Some of the exhibits in his museum reflect the inmates' resourcefulness in their longing for freedom.

"This, I'm gonna tell you, is my favorite display of the museum. These are three pistols, small handguns, that I think most people walk right by as they're visiting the museum," he says. "But those pistols are actually carved out of wood and painted, and they look really real."

The weapons were never used in an escape attempt.

"They found 'em before the inmates were gonna try to use 'em," Willett says.

There is homemade rope attached to a homemade grappling hook to scale the walls, a carved wooden propeller for a chimerical flying machine and a short-handled, inmate-made shovel used in a stunningly unsuccessful tunneling attempt.

"Unfortunately, they came up in the warden's back yard and the warden's wife was out there," Willett says. "She was able to call for help."

Another display shows prisoners' ingenuity in making weapons to use on each other or the guards. Shanks for stabbing are fashioned from spoons, antlers and odd scraps of metal. Two padlocks fastened to a rope makes a handy flail. A length of pipe with a screw-on firing pin is a crude zip gun.

And there's convict art: a jewelry box built of matchsticks, a chess set carved out of soap, a purse made from Camel cigarette packs — back when the prison system allowed smoking.

But the exhibit that gets the most attention?

"We have here the Texas electric chair ... nicknamed "Old Sparky," ... first used in 1924 and last used in 1964," he says. "Three hundred sixty one men were put to death in that chair."

Willett himself oversaw 89 executions by lethal injection when he was warden at The Walls. He doesn't generally talk about it. He doesn't like to get into arguments with visitors who may be against capital punishment. Yet the visitors who come here tend to self-select. He says many are supporters of the death penalty.

"There's people that'll come through this museum and say, 'We ought to go back to that [the electric chair].' And there's people from Europe [who] say 'We ought to get executions going back in our country.' "

For this reporter, the best takeaway from the museum are the handsome leather items, like wallets, made by the inmates. Part of the proceeds go into their accounts. They're one of the few things on display in the Texas Prison Museum that the convicts are encouraged to make.

Morning Edition is visiting unsung museums all across the county, those little-known but ridiculously interesting gems you're glad you stumbled across.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've spent part of this summer exploring hidden treasures, unsung museums.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Today, we visit the Texas Prison Museum.

INSKEEP: Where there is plenty to discuss since Texas has the world's largest prison system and also the busiest death chamber in the developed world.

MONTAGNE: Look for the sign with the ball and chain on Interstate 45 north of Houston. Here's NPR's John Burnett.

JIM WILLETT: My name is Jim Willett, and I'm the director of the Texas Prison Museum. And prior to coming here, I worked for 30 years for the prison system and was a warden for the last eight years I was there.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Jim Willett is bald and affable with hawkish eyes. He's not your typical museum docent. His deep knowledge of the artifacts of state-ordered punishment comes from the years he oversaw the looming red-brick penitentiary in downtown Huntsville known as The Walls. Some of the exhibits in his museum reflect the inmates' resourcefulness in their longing for freedom.

WILLETT: This, I'm going to tell you, is my favorite display of the museum. These are three pistols, small handguns, that I think most people walk right by as they're visting the museum. But those pistols are actually carved out of wood and painted. And they look really real.

BURNETT: Were they ever used in an escape attempt?

WILLETT: No. And they found them before the inmates were going to try to use them.

BURNETT: There is a homemade rope attached to a homemade grappling hook to scale the walls, a carved wooden propeller for a chimerical flying machine, a short-handled inmate-made shovel used in a stunningly unsuccessful tunneling attempt.

WILLETT: Unfortunately, they came up in the warden's backyard and the warden's wife was out there. She was able to call for help (laughter).

BURNETT: Another display shows prisoners' ingenuity in making weapons to use on each other or the guards. Shanks for stabbing are fashioned from spoons, antlers and odd scraps of metal. Two padlocks fastened to a rope makes a handy flail. A length of pipe with a screw-on firing pin is a crude zip gun.

WILLETT: You've only got - what are - what are you looking at there? - maybe eight inches of pipe. I'd hate to be holding it when it went off.

BURNETT: And there's convict art - a jewelry box made of matchsticks, a chess set carved out of soap, a purse made from Camel cigarette packs back when the prison system allowed smoking. But the exhibit that gets the most attention...

WILLETT: We have here the Texas electric chair. It was nicknamed Old Sparky; was first used in 1924 and last used in 1964. Three hundred sixty-one men were put to death in that chair.

BURNETT: Could you describe it for people?

WILLETT: It is built out of really solid oak, big arms, big legs, a lot of leather and a lot of buckles on it and a couple of places where some large electrical wiring comes into.

BURNETT: Jim Willett himself oversaw 89 executions by lethal injection when he was warden at The Walls. He doesn't generally talk about it. He doesn't like to get into arguments with visitors who may be against capital punishment. Yet, the visitors who come here tend to self-select. He says many are supporters of the death penalty.

WILLETT: You know, we - there's people that'll come through this museum and say we ought to go back to that, you know, and there's people from Europe that'll come in and say we ought to get the executions going back in our country.

BURNETT: For me, the best takeaway from the museum are the handsome leather items, like wallets made by the inmates. Part of the proceeds go into their accounts. They're one of the few things on display in the Texas Prison Museum that the convicts are encouraged to make. John Burnett, NPR News, Huntsville, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.