Texas Prisoner Burials Are a Gentle Touch in a Punitive System
Manny Fernandez, New York Times (January 05, 2012)
At a cemetery in Texas, murderers and other convicts whose bodies are unclaimed can be interred and, for a few moments, remembered.
A really interesting article on the cemetery used by Texas prison officials for unclaimed bodies. These are the unclaimed dead bodies of convicted prisoners.
I found this section towards the end of the article most compelling.
The state’s prison agency, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, has been the steward of the cemetery since the first inmates were buried there in the mid-1800s, maintaining and operating it in recent decades as carefully and respectfully as any religious institution might.
An inmate crew from the nearby Walls Unit prison cleans the grounds, mows the grass and trims trees four days per week. The inmates dig the graves with a backhoe and shovels, serve as pallbearers and chisel the names on the headstones by hand using metal stencils and black paint. The cemetery was named for an assistant warden at the Walls Unit who helped clean and restore the graveyard in the 1960s, and even today, the warden or one of his deputies attends every burial.
“It’s important, because they’re people still,” said the warden, James Jones. “Of course they committed a crime and they have to do their time, and unfortunately they end up dying while they’re in prison, but they’re still human beings.”
In a state known for being tough on criminals, where officials recently eliminated last-meal requests on death row, the Byrd cemetery has been a little-known counterpoint to the mythology of the Texas penal system. One mile from the Walls Unit, which houses the state’s execution chamber, about 100 inmates are buried each year in ceremonies for which the state spends considerable time and money. Each burial costs Texas about $2,000. Often, as in Mr. Davis’s case, none of the deceased’s relatives attend, and the only people present are prison officials and the inmate workers.
Though all of those buried here were unclaimed by relatives, many family members fail to claim the bodies because they cannot afford burial expenses and want the prison agency to pay the costs instead. The same relatives who declined to claim the body will then travel to Huntsville to attend the state-paid services at the cemetery.
Time and time again, the Death Reference Desk has come across the cost issue. You can see all of those posts in the Death + the Economy section.
The Texas prisoner cemetery also reminds me of the post on Hart Island, where New York’s unclaimed dead bodies are buried.
I’d like to create an entire map of all unclaimed dead body cemeteries/repositories around the world. Welcome to 2012′s big project.