Book reviews Unrepentant

A former Huntsville warden and a renowned D.A. offer their perspectives on the world's third-largest prison system

More than 147,000 inmates were under the supervision of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in the fall of 2003, a population almost three times that of the student enrollment at the University of Texas-Austin and many times larger than the numerous small towns whose cultures and economies are dominated by the prisons in their midst. Yet, the prisoners and parolees - of which nearly a half-million reside in the state - are a shadow population, stigmatized on one end by generalizations and on the other by sensational exceptions such as serial-killer Kenneth McDuff, who was paroled in 1989 after serving time for a triple murder and executed in 1998, convicted of another murder and suspected in at least nine others.

McDuff, who began his criminal career as a burglar in central Texas and was paroled not once but twice, plays a key role in two new books about the Texas prison system. One is a memoir by former Huntsville Warden Jim Willett; the other is a revised reference book by District Court Judge and former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson. While their purposes are different, each author brings a level of knowledge and compassion to the subject that puts a human face on an industry and institution that forms a cornerstone of our society.

As one might expect of a former prosecutor, Anderson does not spread his compassion evenly. In the many anecdotes that animate his account of how Texas' criminal justice system functions, the victims are always virtuous, the criminals repeat offenders waiting to happen. "Tracy was bright, honest, family oriented," Anderson writes of a 22-year-old Houston murder victim. "She loved kids and was always ready to help others." Anderson is a champion of the Victims' Rights movement, which has resulted in juries being able to hear from survivors and victims in the courtroom, as well as community crime-prevention programs and parole protests. He gives credit for Texas' declining crime rates (murder in 2003 was at 2.6 per 100,000, down from an all-time high of 16.9 in 1980) to McDuff-inspired reforms such as increased minimum parole eligibility. But even if you don't feel as proud as Anderson that "The Texas prison system, the largest in the United States, is now the world's third largest - behind only China and Russia," his handbook is an accessible and useful guide.

McDuff, who opens Anderson's tale, appears somewhat later in Willett's series of vignettes from his 30-year career in the Texas prison system, which began and ended at Huntsville's infamous Walls unit. Willett laments that the press never wanted to hear about his inmates who make toys for orphans, but it is the Walls' role as home to Texas' execution chamber that will likely draw readers to Warden as well. Willett's prosaic

Warden: Prison life and death from the inside out
By Jim Willett and Ron Rozelle
Bright Sky Press
$24.95, 208 pages
ISBN: 1931721505

Crime in Texas: Your complete guide to the criminal justice system
By Ken Anderson
University of Texas Press
$19.95, 220 pages
ISBN: 0292706197
account (aided by writer Ron Rozelle) of mundane prison routines past and present and the infamous 11-day Carrasco seige in which two civilians lost their lives is a quick, riveting read, but his personal struggle with the most-dreaded role of the Huntsville warden holds the narrative together. His journal writings (some more reconstructed-sounding than others) reveal a deep ambivalence about state executions, which resumed in Texas in 1982, an ambivalence cultivated by his recognition that the incarcerated men with whom he shared the bulk of his life were just as human as he and his family.

Only McDuff's artificial end brought Willett some measure of peace. "There have even been nights when my heart - at least part of it - has gone out to the inmate himself, stretched out on the gurney," Willett reflects upon seeing a group holding a candlelight vigil the night of the infamous murderer's execution, but "Tonight, for once, the flickering candles inspire no doubt."

By Elaine Wolff

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