Since 1982, when Texas reinstated capital punishment and adopted lethal injection as the method, the state has executed 236 convicted murderers in the Death House of the Huntsville Unit. Last year Texas executed 40 prisoners, setting a new record for the number of deaths by lethal injection in a single year.
"None of us involved in this enjoy the job we have to do," says Huntsville warden Jim Willet, a Christian. "We just try our best to do it professionally. We want to conduct it with all the dignity that is within us and treat everyone involved with dignity."
Today 436 men await execution at another prison in Livingston, about 40 miles east of Huntsville. Women awaiting the death penalty are at a separate facility.
When his or her time comes, each will be transported to the Huntsville prison, better known as the Walls Unit for its 30-foot brick exterior. A prison van backs up through a series of gates and a long alley to the Death House door at about 1 p.m. The condemned is immediately placed inside one of the eight holding cells within the small, brick building. He spends the afternoon passing time with Chaplain Jim Brazzil.
"I let the inmate set the pace. Sometimes we play chess or checkers or dominoes. Some tell jokes. Some want to talk or read Scripture or sing. I've led several to the Lord right here," he says, resting one hand on the bars of a cell.
At mid-afternoon, the prisoner is allowed a 30-minute visit with his lawyer, then 30 minutes with his personal spiritual adviser. Meanwhile, Brazzil goes a few blocks away to the Hospitality House, a safe haven for inmates' families operated by Texas Baptists. As Brazzil visits with the family members of the condemned inmate, he has the opportunity to relay messages between the convict and his or her family.
"I walk through the process with them. I tell them what he is doing. It helps prepare them and give them a sense of bonding with their loved one," he says.
Late in the afternoon, the condemned inmate eats his last meal. "I always eat dinner with them," Brazzil says. "I don't think a man ought to eat by himself, especially when it's his last meal."
"That period after 4 p.m. is a very intense time," Brazzil says. Some inmates grow very quiet. Others want to talk about spiritual matters.
"There have been many times when we've all been down on our knees -- the prisoner and me, with correctional officers kneeling on either side. It's a very spiritual place back here."
One inmate who made a profession of faith asked to be baptized, less than two hours before his execution. There was no place to immerse anyone in the Death House, but the inmate insisted.
"I struggled with it, but I took a cup of water and did it the old Methodist way," Brazzil says. "In spite of my reservations, it was one of the most meaningful spiritual experiences I've ever had."
"It's time" At 6 p.m., Warden Willett's office receives two phone calls -- one from the governor's office and one from the attorney general -- instructing the prison personnel to proceed with the execution. Willett walks to the Death House with his hands in his pockets, calls the inmate by name and says, "It's time for you to get out and come with me."
In Texas, the journey to the death chamber is nothing like the Hollywood image of a prisoner walking his last mile down a long, narrow corridor. At the Walls Unit, it's just a few steps from the holding area to the adjacent death chamber. The prisoner is neither handcuffed nor shackled with leg irons.
The death chamber is 8 feet wide and 10 feet long. Its brick walls are painted a pale green. A padded steel gurney takes up most of the room. It resembles the examining table in a doctor's office, except for the two stationary arm rests extending from either side and for the eight wide, tanned leather straps that hold the inmate in place.
Once the inmate lies on the gurney, a tie-down team secures the restraints within half a minute. Four minutes later, members of the medical team insert the needles and hook up the IVs filled with $176 worth of lethal chemicals.
Once the medical personnel leave, usually within three minutes, only three people remain in the death chamber. The inmate lies on the gurney. The warden stands at the head of the table. The chaplain stands at the foot of the gurney with his hand resting just below the inmate's knee.
"I keep my hand there the whole time, giving a squeeze every now and then, just to let them know I'm there," Brazzil says.