If a Texas state prisoner dies or is executed, relatives or friends can pick up the body. If they don’t, he or she is buried in the largest prison graveyard in the United States – the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery in Huntsville, Texas. Such burials occur around 100 times each year.
Named after an assistant warden at the Huntsville Unit who helped clean and restore the 22-acre graveyard in the 1960s, the cemetery is still associated with the prison unit known as “The Walls” for its 19th-century brick walls. The warden or assistant warden from the facility attend each funeral.
A prisoner’s body may be unclaimed for a number of reasons. There may be no surviving friends or relatives, but a more likely explanation is that the friends or relatives are too poor to afford the burial expenses.
“I think everyone assumes if you are in a prison cemetery you’re somehow the worst of the worst,” said Indiana State University assistant professor of criminology Franklin T. Wilson, who is writing a book about the Byrd cemetery. “But it’s more of a reflection of your socioeconomic status. This is more of a case of if you’re buried there, you’re poor.”
Although Texas prison officials have only been able to verify 2,100 prisoner burials at the graveyard, Wilson, who recently photographed every headstone in the cemetery, estimated the number was over 3,000.
Coffins are transported to the gravesite on a trailer hitched to a tractor. White-clad prisoners in the grave-digging crew from the Huntsville Unit join the mourners, if any, and listen to a prison chaplain lead a prayer. Friends and relatives often attend the funeral and sometimes bring boom boxes to play the deceased’s favorite songs. But only a few of the thousands of graves have flowers.
“We’re the family for them,” said prisoner Gavin Geneva, who is on the cemetery work crew. ”We’re out here. We are the brother or the wife or the sister – whatever it may be.”
For a state that has shown its unwillingness to spend money on its living prisoners – including housing them in non-air conditioned facilities, making them work without pay, often failing to provide adequate medical care and doing away with last meals on death row – the prison funeral services are, by most accounts, surprisingly well done. The state spends about $2,000 per burial, contracting with a funeral home that dresses the body in free world clothing.
“It’s important because they’re people still,” noted Huntsville Unit 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.”
A prison work crew maintains the Byrd cemetery, which was first used to bury prisoners in the mid-1800s. In addition to mowing the grass, trimming the trees and cleaning the grounds, they dig graves using a backhoe and shovels, chisel names onto concrete headstones and carry the coffins to their final resting place.
The result is a quiet sanctuary of green grass and rows of headstones with a brick well and an altar with a cross as its centerpiece. There is no fence around the graveyard; the prisoners buried there are finally free.
Being assigned to the cemetery work crew is considered a solemn duty.
“It has made me a better person,” said prisoner Damon Gibson, 38, who is serving a 14-year sentence for theft. “It has made me reflect on the things I’ve done. I don’t want this to be me.”
(First published by Prison Legal News and used here by permission)