Its official name is Captain Joe Byrd, but most people in Huntsville, Texas refer to the prison cemetery as ‘Peckerwood Hill.’ Inmates who die while incarcerated are buried here when family members are either unable or unwilling to make the necessary funerary arrangements; even those who are executed by the state.
I went looking for the cemetery after reading the book WARDEN, written by my now good friend, Mr. Jim Willett. He spent thirty years working for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and eventually became Warden of the Huntsville Unit Penitentiary (aka The Walls) where all of the state’s ordered executions are carried out. In his three years as warden, Jim oversaw a total of 89 lethal injections. In his book, he recalls how it felt to bury the inmates at Joe Byrd Cemetery, often being one of only a couple of individuals to offer a final farewell.
When I first arrived at the cemetery, I stood at the top of the hill near the entrance and snapped a few photographs. The stones fascinated me. None of the graves are identified by name. Just as the inmates were known by their assigned prison identification number while alive, they carry that number on with them in death. Those who have been executed receive an ‘x’ next to their ID number.
As I walked a little further into the cemetery, I glanced down the hill and was surprised by the sight of several prison trustees (dressed all in white) working with a backhoe digging a row of new graves. I was used to seeing trustees out around Huntsville doing various jobs, but I suppose I hadn’t quite expected to see them working in this capacity.
I was about 100 yards away from the inmates when I decided it was best not to walk any closer. Whenever trustees are working outside of the unit, they are accompanied by an armed guard – and the gentleman charged with watching over these inmates quickly noticed my presence and made his way up the hill to greet me. He introduced himself as Officer Jennings, the long-time caretaker of the cemetery grounds. Today was his last day on the job, as he was moving to another county on a recent promotion within the system.
As we stood there talking, I watched the inmates digging and asked Officer Jennings about the process of burial.
“Do inmates always dig the graves?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. “I have the same group of guys that I have worked with for a long time that I trust to do the job. They have never given me any problem being out here. We have five funerals tomorrow, so it’s been a busy day already.”
“May I take a picture of them working?”
“Not without permission from the warden,” he said. “It’s a liability issue.”
I understood this, of course, having recently been granted access to the prison for the purpose of investigating a section of the unit for paranormal activity. It is a working prison, and I had been instructed not to take photographs of the inmates while inside, but I wasn’t sure if it would be any different with the trustees out in public. I turned my camera off while we continued to talk and watch the inmates work.
“Where are the stones made?”
“In that shed over there at the edge of the property. Right here, on-site,” he replied.
“Are the stones ready for the five funerals tomorrow?” I asked, curious as to who would be placing them and when.
“Nope. I have no replacement lined up,” he said a bit solemnly. “I have no idea when these guys will get their stones.”
I thanked Officer Jennings for his time, assured him that I would refrain from taking pictures of the trustees during the remainder of my visit, and wished him good luck in his new position.
Before I had decided to take on a writing project about capital punishment, I had never really considered what happened to inmates who die while incarcerated, either by natural causes, the result of prison violence, suicide, or execution. I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to where their final resting places would be, or who would be given the task of taking care of the arrangements.
I am continually enlightened with every new avenue of research I pursue. These experiences become part of who I am and how I view the world. I find my ideals are constantly shifting and evolving with each new revelation. Standing among the graves at Joe Byrd was no different. I should have returned the next day to attend the funerals. I regret that I did not. I had always been under the impression that death inside of prison was the end of the story when in reality it actually extends quite a bit further beyond that.
I didn’t know who these men were, and I probably never would, but I found the idea of being that alone in the end difficult to comprehend, even for ‘criminals.’ I am not a bleeding heart. I know that people are capable of doing horrendous things to one another, and that these men were living their lives in the prison system for a reason. Still… there is something in me that felt a measure of sadness walking through acres of cement crosses marked with nothing but a number.