Voices from Solitary: Hank Skinner’s Dispatches from Texas Death Row

by | November 7, 2011

Today, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay of execution to Hank Skinner, to allow for the testing of DNA evidence which Skinner says could cast doubt on his guilt. Skinner was scheduled to be executed two days from now, on November 9. In March of last year, Skinner came within a half-hour of execution before receiving a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court. (Read more about the case here and here.)

Since 2008, Hank Skinner has been writing dispatches from his cell on Texas’s death row in the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, under the heading “Hell Hole News.” These dispatches appear on the website maintained by Skinner’s supporters. Many of them deal with his case, but several describe conditions on death row, where prisoners live in near-complete isolation while awaiting execution–a condition some human rights and civil rights groups have identified as torture. Excerpts from three of Skinner’s dispatches appear below–including one describing what were to be his final hours last year. To read all of Skinner’s “Hell Hole News,” go to this web page and scroll to the bottom.

October 27, 2008

…I’ve lost every friend I ever had here. Texas killed them one by one. They leave here. They never come back. I read in the paper what they said and how they died, how many minutes it took them to die, what colors they turn as the chemicals course through their veins, how they strangle, gurgle, rasp, snore and die, die, die. So, trust me, I’ve got experience here with death. Thirteen (13) years of it. 322 executions worth. For all the terrible things some may have done, I’ve never encountered any of the “monsters”, “demons”, “sociopaths”, “super predators” or “deranged killers” the D. A.’s and news media are always talking about. I’ve seen only human beings some wretched, true but mostly just twisted and broken by dismal lives and upbringings they themselves had little or no control over. I’m not seeking to lessen their responsibility, I’m just saying, it could happen to anyone and, it has.

Acceptance and realization of the enormity of the deed of causing death has affected so many so profoundly that we’ve had quite a few suicide attempts and completions. Others drop their appeals, but that’s suicide too, in my eyes. The most recent was Michael Rodriquez of the Texas. The isolation, desperation, sensory deprivation and the utter despair of realizing the enormity of what he’d done drove him to conclude that he’d rather die than continue to live in this misery, this man made purgatory called Texas death row. The media describes our conditions as “stark”. Ha/ha! What a malicious understatement. Look at the Walnut street prison “experiment” mentioned in the case of in re Medley, 1890 U. S. Supreme Court. This is a form of the “Pennsylvania System” which was instituted by the Quakers in mid 1800’s. It was known that as now, over 154 years later, that THESE CONDITIONS DRIVE MEN MAD, as Charles Dickens stated upon his visit to one of those SHU’s:

“The dull repose and quiet that prevails is awful. In his shroud [of a cell] is lowered an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and society, the living world; he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth until his whole term of imprisonment has expired… He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years and in the meantime is dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair”.

So, with all that said, you know I’m qualified as a lay expert on these subjects. I’ve been all over death row in my years here and talked to countless men, some guilty, some innocent, some in the murky gray areas in between. I can tell you that when a man lays dying on that gurney and says his is so sorry for what he did, he really means it and, when he sheds a tear, it is for the victims, not for himself. We’re scared of death, as everyone is; but most of us who have any sense left view death as an escape from this torment. Yes, dying is bad. But it’ll be over in a few minutes and thus it’s the easy part when compared to all we’ve suffered and seen here.

It is profoundly disturbing to watch a sane man you’d just talked to in the dayroom, from your cell one day, when he just “snaps” and goes stark raving mad the next day, covers himself in feces and cuts himself to ribbons or, hangs himself with a sheet or mattress cover strips braided into a rope. The next day he’s gone, the empty cell a ‘stark’ (ha/h) reminder of what happens here. I’ve seen it many times…

In this place you cannot have anything, say anything, see anything, know anything, do anything, be anything, hear anything or enjoy anything. It’s beyond being merely inhumane; locus es terribilis iste! – “this place is terrible!” Some of you might be quick to say “well, they’re capital murderers and they shouldn’t have anything anyway”. To you I would say, again, not all of us are guilty but besides that, our court sanctioned punishment is DEATH; we forfeit our very lives for the crimes we’re accused of, so we shouldn’t have to forfeit more, extra-judicially, in the meantime just because others want to make us suffer. If you believe otherwise, then you are the very thing you accuse us of being: a remorseless, vile, sociopathic killer. The mark of a civilized society is supposed to be it’s ability to rise above the baser instincts of animalistic terror. If you wish to visit that upon us, you are not part of civilized society. It is that same society which condemns such actions by sentencing people to death who commit them… i.e. again, you become the ‘monster’ you loathe…

March 26, 2010

[Note: Hank Skinner was scheduled to be executed on March 24, 2010. The U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay with less than an hour to spare.]

A day with death’s embrace.

I feel really out of place right now. Once you really prepare yourself for death and are convinced of its happening, it seems difficult to come back to life. Almost like I don’t want to be here. I’m at least somewhat used to the feeling. Having engaged transcendental states of being from a young age, I’ve felt odd like that, coming back onto this plane of existence. I’ve pierced the vale many times, peered over the wall into the eternal valleys. This one was different, though. Against my will, more intense, more lingering and with definite after effects. I still feel death’s bony digits clutching at my shoulders, trying to pull me down and over into the abyss.

The last 24 hours were hard. This officer I’d always traded shot with decided to get tetchy and wrote me a 2 cents case claiming I’d “threatened” him. They put me on level III and took all my stuff, then just continued to terrorize me endlessly until I left the hell hole at noon the 24th.  By the last two weeks they were shaking me down every day and 7 days out started shaking me down twice a shift = 4 times a day. Then parked an officer in a chair in front of my door around the clock. I am the only person out of the last 6 prisoners executed to have been mistreated in this way and I know that for a fact because I was there, to see how they were treated, from October 13th until March 24th.

I really enjoyed my final visits, especially with my daughters. My oldest daughter, Natalie Jo, I have not held her since she was 5 or 6, not seen a photo of her since she was 11. My middle daughter, Kristen Nicole, I’ve never seen her in person although I’d been in her presence when she was a kid, it was very difficult for me to sit there and look at them as grown women…It was worth all I suffered this past month just to get them out here, sitting side-by-side and talk to them. There were no awkward moments. We fell right into it like we’d been there all along…I got to see my wife, but didn’t get enough time with her. I didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to see but I guess 3 out 4 aint’t bad. I have to thank Warden Lester for that. For some reason he and I are now able to hold a civil conversation, which previously we’d never done in 13 years…

So we come to the day of death. Tuesday (23rd) night, Don Guido Todeschini from the Vatican in Rome, Italy, along with deacon Jose Angel Vitela from the Saint Francis Order, San Martin de Porres Mission in Corrigan, Texas, were supposed to give me confession, communion, the last rites, extreme unction and an apostolic blessing from the Pope (Don Guido tells me that this blessing will carry me straight to heaven to stand before St Peter, upon my death and that it carries the authority of the Pope, as if he, were actually here himself). For whatever reason, someone in the chaplaincy made an issue of minor technical matters and cancelled the ceremony. This arbitrary action of course had a great negative effect on me, as by Wednesday (24) it appeared I was going to die spiritually unprepared and lacking. Warden Simmons came to the rescue and assembled the crew at a table behind the visit area. Don Guido performed a beautiful ceremony in Italian and Latin, conferring upon me the sacraments and the apostolic blessing, along with the last rites and extreme unction. After this ceremony I felt blessed and totally at peace. I went back into the visit with my wife but time was short and I did not bet to tell her half of what I wanted/needed to.

When I got to the Walls unit everything changed. They were exceedingly humane to me and I was grateful for that…They’d told me I could get in my last meal only what they had on hand in the kitchen, so I listed several things, to give them a choice of entrées to make sure I’d get some. They made it: 3 pieces of popeyes style fried chicken, 2 catfish fillets, 2 bacon double cheeseburgers, a large order of fries, a bowl of raw onion, bowl of shredded cheese, bowl each of Ranch dressing and Tartar sauce and a chocolate milkshake. Chaplain Hart told me prisoners prepare the last meals. I asked him to be sure and tell them how much I truly appreciated that food…It was the best food I’ve had in 13+ years, hands down. My eternal thanks to the convicts who cooked it. The only persons who could have done better is Mrs. Maggard (my pastor’s wife) or my mama.

I’m told that most guys who go over there can’t eat their last meal. Too nervous. I was calm as a cucumber. I truly felt like I had God’s hand on my shoulder. I can’t say why but I also had the idea that there were thousands of prayers being said for me, all over the world…

The warden come in there to see me. I’d braced myself for some cool hand Luke’s walkin’ boss kinda speech – “what we have heah is, failure to communicate” ha/ha. But no, the guy, Warden O’Reilley, was nice as he could be…At 3:00pm Chaplain Hart went over to see the witnesses at the Hospitality House, to prepare them…I spent 30 minutes with [lawyer] Doug [Robinson], then my Pastor, Albert Maggard, came in for 30 minutes. We had a good prayer and visit, which gave me more strength. I went back to the holding cell at 4:00pm to devour more of that fine meal and talk on the phone. Even Doug remarked on how calm I was, before he left. I’m not afraid of death. I am scared of those noxious chemicals they use to kill you. 8-10 minutes would seem an eternity when you’re paralyzed and suffocating to death…

Like I said, I had God’s hand on my shoulder and all the love and support in the world to back me up, so I was ok. I think some of the guys who’ve died over there all alone and it makes me want to cry. There is definitely a spiritual pall, an ethereal darkness over that place. I can “see” shades and remnants. I brought their psychic spoor back here with me. For the past 3 days I’ve slept a lot and dreamed of many who died there; all of whom I knew and whom I called an associate or friend. It’s now Sunday 28th and I’m still tired and I give out…

Back to the drama on death watch. I’d finished making all my calls but I ran over, past 5:00pm. So my last call was to my lawyer. Official news of the stay came at 5:40pm, the Sgt told me. So I was 20 minutes away from death – they kill you at 6:01pm. Doug told me, “hello? Hank? You have the most uncanny sense of timing of anyone I know.” I’m like “Yeah? Why is that?”; he said “Well…” and hesitated. The way I heard “well”… I thought he was gonna say “the Supreme Court just turned you down, I’m so sorry”; but instead he said “we just got word the Supreme Court granted you a stay and set the case for their conference calendar”. He said some other stuff but I couldn’t hear it ‘cause I’d dropped the phone and was too busy whooping and hollering to hear anything. I kinda slid down the wall and caught the receiver up and thought I heard him say they’d be up to see me tomorrow. So I quickly hung up and asked to call my daughter Kristen so I could tell her and Natalie Jo, which I did. Kristen immediately started crying – I’m like “child, I swear. First you’re crying ‘cause I’m gonna die, now you’re crying ‘cause I’m gonna live?” She says “but Daddy, I’m so happy!” Well, Hell. I guess I couldn’t argue with that, huh.

Mentally though, I could not process this stay right away. I felt, physically, like a thousand pound weight was lifted off my chest. Then I felt so light and thought I was gonna float off the ground and my chest started hurting ‘cause my heart was beating so hard. I was trying to talk to Chaplain Hart and Lt Seitz but I really couldn’t hear what they were saying because of the buzzing in my ears…

They put me in the van and brought me back here to Polunsky at dusk, in a light rain. I was glad to see the rain…

July 13, 2011

…Death row prisoners…are not sentenced to any term of penal servitude, but only to death as our punishment—after we’re convicted and sentenced, we are not TDCJ prisoners. We’re still wards of the counties from which we came. Back in the 1930-40’s, when a bucket of KFC and a lynching were popular Sunday-after-church events on the courthouse lawn, the legislature decided to build the “Short Row” at the Walls…That’s why [Texas criminal code] commands we be “safely held” by the director of TDCJ until such time as our convictions and sentences are either carried out, reversed or commuted. They can’t make us work because we’re not sentenced to penal servitude and, a court couldn’t sentence us to penal servitude and death on top of or, at the end of it, ‘cause that would violate the 8th amendment, double jeopardy, etc.

We are not segregated because we’re the worst-of-the-worst, like Ad Seg…We’re segregated only because we’re sentenced to death and prison administrators think that “we have nothing left to lose” so we’d be more “prone to act out” and do something to an officer, etc. The death sentence itself, not us, presents the security risk. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that we are not similarly situated to Ad Seg for purposes of 1st, 8th, and 14th amendment analysis. They’ve also ruled that any punishment outside the context of our sentences without due process is presumptively illegal and violates the 8th amendment. So, we (death row) enjoy a “higher” status legally; our rights fall somewhere between that of a pretrial detainee and a convict sentenced to prison, see?…

Texas, since [the] Ruiz [case], has consistently sought was to evade their responsibilities regarding due process and punish us, retaliate against us too, on mere whim of whatever clown is in power back here at the time. Huntsville headquarters has helped them by consistently weakening the due process required before we can be punished, in direct violation of Supreme Court precedent. However, as we all know, Texas has a long history of bucking Federal law and doing whatever they want…

Before [Warden Timothy] Lester left on June 24th, he had the welders seal up the rat-holes on all the doors. For those of you who don’t know what a rat-hole is, let me explain. The cell doors here slide back and forth on a track in the top of the door and a guide 6” off the floor on the bottom. The doorway is a portal and the door on the outside slides to cover it and it locks by use of an electromagnetic drop pin. The door is thus actually on the outside of the threshold. The bottom of the door is 6” off the floor. So, you used to have a 30” wide by 6” high open area there so that, even locked in the cell, you’d have some way to interact with your fellow prisoners and safely socialize by use of a “life-line”—prisoners here makes lines out of old onion bags or the fiber strings out of old sheets. In this way you could send your neighbors 4 or 5 tacos made from commissary-bought items or share books, magazines or newspapers…

All we have to do in here is read and write or play chess over the run. They’ve taken everything else away from us. We play Scrabble or dominoes too. But we are otherwise extremely isolated in here and we have no TVs, thus no news or other windows as to what’s going on out there. I have not seen a TV since 1997. So, with that little rat-hole you maintain your sanity because when this cell you’re entombed alive in starts whipping your ass, you can get out there on the run and one of your friends is just on the other end of that string, so you can get out of that bed and reach out to someone. We get only 1 hour a day, 4 days a week, out of our cells, in a cage in the common area right in front of our cells. So the majority of our time is spent in this 7 ft by 12 ft concrete and steel tomb with only a toilet and sink and steel bunk in it. I’ve been here 17+ years, the experts on SHU (Special Housing Units) environments, in a published story in Time magazine a year or two ago, said that about five years is the maximum anyone can sustain in a place like this and still be called some semblance of sane. I’m not sure how I’ve managed to keep my sanity this long…

Others are not as lucky (or, as cursed, depending on how you look at it) as I am. Many here are illiterate or, although literate, have no help out there. We look out for those unfortunate prisoners and we make sure we talk to them, share with them, try to give them something to look forward to and hold on to, for their sanity. Then too, there are those here who depend on their hustle to survive. Some of them draw and sell their artwork to others here for stamps, sundries, food and hygiene/clothes items they need. Those prisoners will now be doing without, lying in their bunks to let insanity claim them. Those who wash clothes for a hustle can no longer do that. The activity, something to do, some small goal to attain for today, has kept them sane all these years. I recently wrote Warden Butcher and told him that it was a stupid, stupid mistake to weld those 4” x 6” plats over the rat-holes and that whoever made that dumb-ass decision will soon live to regret it, I am certain…

Living under a sentence of death is one of, if not the, most debilitating experiences you can imagine. It literally crushes you under its weight. All of the prisoners here who’ve been here more than 3 or 4 years are psychologically damaged. If you had people like Dr. Craig Haney, Dr. Terry Kupers, Dr. Stuart Grassian and people who work with them to come in here and individually assess each prisoner, you’d see how damaged they are. I see it every day. It’s bad.

And, Texas is not playing with this death penalty biz either. They kill one, two or three of us almost every week. The pall of death is always looming over us. All of the recent “security measures” enacted by the clowns who run this place do nothing at all to enhance security, but does everything to drive these prisoners crazier…

So here is death row, men who are living the last days of their lives and about to die, being treated worse by far than population prisoners when it’s supposed to be the other way around; and worse, being punished with no due process whatsoever…

I don’t think I’m any saint myself, do not get me wrong; but, I can truthfully say that I have never and, would never, stoop to the levels these pathetic fools do, to nitpick, hate on, back stab, retaliate against, and otherwise mistreat prisoners who have little of nothing and cannot defend themselves otherwise because the very people who are responsible for affording them due process and doing the right thing, are instead robbing them of it, hiding it and lying about it, while snickering behind their backs at how they screwed them over. And you, the public, your tax dollars pay these clowns salaries you have a right to demand a little more from and, a little better of, your state officials, and you should do so!

Jeff Blackburn, an attorney with the Texas Innocence Project, says that I have an attitude toward and (intense) dislike of, law enforcement and (TDCJ) authority. He is absolutely correct. All of the above, and more, are the reasons why.

A guy in population who gets screwed over has time to regroup, to recover, and recoup his losses so, it’s not too bad for him—he’s out there where he can move around and do something for himself. It won’t take but a day or two, he’s flying again. A prisoner on death row, however, is locked in a box and isolated. He has only a finite number of days in which to live before he’s executed. So anything taken from him, he likely cannot get back and that is especially so now that they’ve sealed up the rat-holes and isolated us further, literally entombing us alive.

The things I see go on here, I’d liken it to a thief who goes into the mail boxes of old folk’s and steals their welfare or Social Security checks; or someone who’d rape and sodomize a paraplegic in a wheelchair. Mistreating those who’re about to die and using the notoriety of a death sentence to do it, to hide behind as an excuse; it’s just so far down in the various castes of sorriness, it makes me ill. Mistreating people just because of their status or situation, which allows them to get away with it. We have some very good officers working here. I mean that strictly in the sense of humanitarian. The problem lies not with them, they get mistreated too, by the same rank and admin who forces them to mistreat us…

James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

James Ridgeway (1936-2021) was the founder and co-director of Solitary Watch. An investigative journalist for over 60 years, he served as Washington Correspondent for the Village Voice and Mother Jones, reporting domestically on subjects ranging from electoral politics to corporate malfeasance to the rise of the racist far-right, and abroad from Central America, Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia. Earlier, he wrote for The New Republic and Ramparts, and his work appeared in dozens of other publications. He was the co-director of two films and author of 20 books, including a forthcoming posthumous edition of his groundbreaking 1991 work on the far right, Blood in the Face. Jean Casella is the director of Solitary Watch. She has also published work in The Guardian, The Nation, and Mother Jones, and is co-editor of the book Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. She has received a Soros Justice Media Fellowship and an Alicia Patterson Fellowship. She tweets @solitarywatch.

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  • My heart is with you its one devine moment for as person to truly repent and feel remorse yet think of that man thaaaat is innocent and think it could be you

  • European

    You cannot teach anyone that taking a human life is wrong by doing it yourself. And you cannot teach anyone that torturing another human being is wrong by doing it yourself.

  • kim hanna

    The death penalty is just a mirror of our government and
    our society. Poisonous and evil. You can see it in our violent sports
    and the violent nature of our politicians and supposed leaders.
    The only thing the USA leads the world in is crimes against humanity.
    It’s the nature of the Amerikan beast.

  • LaureenHolt

    I am glad that this man has been granted another stay & that the DNA from the crime scene will be analyzed to see if it exonerates him. I hope for him that it does, & that he’s released; that what he’s saying about himself & this uncle on the night in question is true. This man’s family will certainly be happy as well

    But if this DNA analysis doesn’t exclude him aS the murderer of this woman, I fear that the execution will proceed. I would like to see his sentence commuted to life in prison, but that’s doubtful, as busy as TX’s death chamber stays…..

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