The following account was written by Billy Joel Tracy, who has spent nearly nineteen years in solitary confinement in various Texas prisons, including one stint of thirteen straight years in isolation. Tracy, a 41-year-old man with a psychiatric disability, has been incarcerated for 21 years in total, and received a death sentence for the murder of a prison officer. Tracy resides on what he calls “Death Watch,” a section of the Polunsky Unit that houses people who have received their confirmed execution dates, though Tracy has not received his own. In this piece, Tracy describes the psychological effects of living in conditions of severe isolation around people so close to their deaths. Tracy has also written a series for Minutes Before Six, expressing his farewells to thirteen of his fellow incarcerated men who have been executed. —Valerie Kiebala
“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.” —Joseph Addison
“Alright Warden, you can take Mr. Tracy to Death Row now.” —102nd District Court Judge Bobby Lockhart
November 15, 2017, I was sentenced to die by lethal injection for the death of Timothy Davison, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) guard. After being sentenced to death, I was immediately taken from the courtroom by TDCJ transportation officers and driven to the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas, where the men of Death Row are housed in solitary confinement.
Four hours after being sentenced to die, I found myself inside a cell the State of Texas had spent the previous two weeks modifying for me in anticipation of me receiving a sentence of death.
This specifically modified cell is housed on 12 building A Pod 1 Section and is the section named “Death Watch.” The Death Watch Section is for those Death Row inmates whose appeals have run out and have received their execution date. Their date to die. They each are given at least 91 days to prepare some last ditch appeals and get their affairs in order before their state sanctioned executions. On this section they are kept away from the other Death Row inmates who have not received execution dates.
The Death Watch Section has 14 cells—all with cameras inside the cells in the upper left hand corner with a view of the entire cell. There are monitors inside two separate control pickets, two different wardens officers and a surveillance office where the footage inside the cells can be viewed. A Texas senator even has access to this live footage. There is zero privacy. The cameras were installed years ago under the pretext of helping prevent suicide attempts. Allegedly so Texas could preserve the condemned life until they were ready to extinguish it themselves.
The Death Watch Section has more than one dark purpose. Texas is infamous for getting the maximum amount of suffering it can out of each taxpayer dollar. Texas also houses inmates it doesn’t like on Death Watch. Inmates who do not have execution dates.
Under the guise of “security,” TDCJ puts inmates on Death Watch without an execution date, so they will have to endure living with a camera in their cell, but more importantly so they are surrounded by men with just days from death, constantly reminded of their doom and constantly suffering the loss of friends.
Imagine the only people you are around are those with a few months to live—getting to know them, watching them experience their last days, then finally watching them be lead away to be killed. Now extrapolate that over YEARS. Can you imagine the psychological impact this would have on someone?
Three other Death Row inmates have been housed on Death Watch as punishment. Two were moved after nine and thirteen months. The third has been on this section over eight years and has endured over 100 men being led to their death. Fifteen were his friends. In 2018 he gave up his appeals because he could no longer take the psychological trauma of watching men live out their last days. His words to me were, “I’m done, Billy, I’m done.” He later decided to continue his appeals at the urging of his family, but not because he wants to live.
The cell my captors spent two weeks modifying is a psychological torture chamber. It is the only cell in TDCJ like it. They cut the steel table and shelf off of the wall. They cut out the steel locker box we store our property in, that was welded underneath the bunk. This is so I have no comfortable place to write, eat, or store my property. I must store my property in bags on the floor. This is a very bad situation in prison because the sewage pipes back up all the time. When that occurs, the raw sewage being flushed down the toilets backs up and comes out of the drains set into the floor outside of the cells. One such drain is two feet from my cell door. Multiple times now the drains have backed up and the sewer water has flooded into my cell, causing me to lose everything it touched on my floor. When this happens I must pile all of my uncontaminated property onto my bunk. This leaves me no place to sit or lay, so I must just stand in the sewer water or sit on my toilet, until a maintenance crew can unclog the pipes. I’ve had to stand/sit like this for HOURS several times. This creates extreme anxiety in me when I go to sleep. Will the run flood? I’m always waking up to check my floor for water. I cannot ever truly relax. With no table to eat from I must set my tray of food onto my sink. My toilet is directly under my tray of food. Eating directly over a toilet is an appetite killer.
TDCJ also welded metal plates with small holes in them over the inflow and outflow air vents. This restricts the heat and air conditioning into my cell to such an extent that it’s made my cell a hot box in the summer and an ice box in the winter. It’s almost always an extreme temperature inside this cell. What is worse is the outflow vent—the vent that sucks the air out—because slowly the screen will fill up with dust. It ends up looking like the filter in your dryer when you don’t clear it out for a long time. With a metal plate over the vent the only way to clear it of the caked up dust is to put my mouth over each hole and repeatedly suck the dust into my mouth and throat and then spit it out. There are thirty holes. I dread doing this. I’m left coughing for hours afterwards. I must do it though. If I do not the cell becomes even more oppressive with no air circulation.
My cell door was also rebuilt, adding a steel box over the food slot so that guards can open it and set whatever item inside the box and close it. Then they open a smaller door so I can reach into the box for the item(s). Two layers of Plexiglas were placed over the outside of the door, covering the two observation slits. More metal was welded onto the bottom and sides of the door so the door is sealed. This restricts air flow and makes it very hard for others to hear anything I say.
On top of all this, I am also only allowed to recreate all alone outside with a supervisor standing there watching me the entire time. The rec yard has two cages in it—it’s designed for two people to utilize. Yet, I am only allowed to recreate alone. Alone everyday. Outside and inside my cell. Alone. Alone except for when I have a visitor—even then a supervisor stands directly behind me to intimidate my visitors.
Living under such oppression would be hard for anyone to cope with. It’s even harder to endure for someone like me, who has a disability. I have severe organic brain damage. The neurological issues I deal with cause issues commonly seen in people with mental illness. I grew up in and out of mental institutions because my brain damage was unknown and misdiagnosed as one mental illness or another, most commonly, Intermittent Explosive Disorder. I’ve never received treatment for brain damage. It went unknown until the day I committed the crime, in 1998, that I received a life sentence for.
TDCJ’s treatment plan for me has been to warehouse me in long-term solitary confinement. Solitary confinement which is proven to only worsen people with impulse/aggression problems like I have. I have spent almost nineteen of the last 21 and a half years in solitary. At the time of the crime I’m on Death Row for, I’d been in solitary for nine and a half years. And now, at the time of writing this piece, I have been in solitary for fourteen and a half of the past seventeen years.
As brutal as my living conditions are, the hardest by far to endure, psychologically, isn’t this cell, recreating alone and living under constant surveillance, or standing for hours in sewage. It is living around men who are living out their last days.
Over the past eighteen months that I have lived on Death Watch, I have made more friends than in all of my other years incarcerated combined. Something about living so close to death causes most to drop their machismo front and open up with each other. It’s how we cope, I guess—reaching out to others for help, support, comfort, understanding. I have become very close, very quickly, with several of these men only to watch them taken away and poisoned until their lives are over. I’ve watched sixteen men walk away to their death. I have been in mourning since January 2018—a mourning that starts over and over, with layer upon layer added and I know it will never end.
I almost wish that all of these men were assholes with repugnant personalities so I wouldn’t mourn them. Several times I almost decided to quit getting to know these men—just to hibernate within myself, to armor my heart and not allow anyone in, to shut out the pain, to form a shell around myself so I can get some peace. I know living that way is not psychologically healthy either. For my personality type I need to interact with others as much as possible. I just don’t know what to do. Either way I choose to live is great emotional pain, great psychological pain.
I have at least five more years before my appeals would be over and I could be executed. Texas plans to keep me here, in this cell, until that day, whether it is in five years or fifteen years. Can I make it that long and retain my sanity? Will I lose myself in this endless death march?
I fear for my sanity more now that I ever have in all of these years of solitary confinement. I’ve seen so many men go crazy from the effects of solitary that I’ve always kept myself on a strict sleep and exercise schedule to help counteract the effects of isolation. I get up and go to bed at the same time every day. This stops me from oversleeping which causes depression and saps your will to live. I exercise first thing after getting out of bed and then I do artwork and write to keep my mind active. Stay busy. Stay active. Regimented. Hard core regimentation. Regimentation mandated due to the terror of losing my sanity.
My strict regimentation is not working as well under the stress of living in this torture cell on Death Watch. Lately my weight is going up and down from muscle loss and muscle gain. Weight fluctuation caused by mini depressions, like someone with a mild bipolar disorder. I can’t sleep more than an hour or two without waking fully and lying there an interminable amount of time before falling into a fitful sleep. I never feel like I’ve slept. Sleep has always been my brief escape from prison. Now I do not have that respite.
I have been tormented with guilt for killing Davison. Guilt that seems to grow each day and not fade. I feel like the character is Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, who murdered someone and imagined he could hear his victim’s heart beating and it drove him crazy. Instead of a beating heart, I constantly hear the imagined voices of Davison’s two daughters—now fatherless—and his brother and niece, now without a brother and uncle… “Daddy, Daddy,” I hear… “Uncle!”… “Brother!”… I hear this like a mantra chanted endlessly.
Living on Death Watch has exacerbated my guilt greatly. Every time one of my friends is executed and I mourn them I think of what I put Davison’s family through. Then I keep thinking about it over and over.