Allan B. Polunsky Unit (TL, formerly the Terrell Unit) is a prison in West Livingston, unincorporated Polk County, Texas, United States, located approximately 5 miles (8.0 km) southwest of Livingston along Farm to Market Road 350. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice operates the facility. The unit houses the State of Texas death row for men, and it has a maximum capacity of 2,900. Livingston Municipal Airport is located on the other side of FM 350. The unit, along the Big Thicket, is 60 miles (97 km) east of Huntsville.
Polunsky was named after Allan B. Polunsky, a former chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice who is now the chairman of the Public Safety Commission, the governing board of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Polunsky houses Texas's "supermax" units and is notable for being the location of Texas's death row for men (executions, though, are conducted at the Huntsville Unit in Huntsville).
The Terrell Unit opened in November 1993. At the time of its opening the public did not associate the prison with the death penalty, as the state's male death row inmates were housed at the Ellis Unit near Huntsville. In November 1998 Martin Gurule, a death row inmate in the Ellis Unit, escaped. He drowned in a nearby creek and his body was found a week later.
After the incident occurred, the TDCJ considered moving the death row for men, and the Terrell Unit was the favored choice for the relocation. According to the TDCJ, the prison escape attempt had hastened the agency's decision to move death row inmates to a new location. TDCJ officials also stated that overcrowding at Ellis was another factor in the death row move. Six months after the escape attempt, the TDCJ decided to move the death row. The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty criticized the move of the death penalty, saying that the conditions of the prisoners were worse than those in their previous location. The Texas Board of Criminal Justice approved the relocation of the men's death row on Friday May 21, 1999.
Polunsky took the death row inmates in 1999, with the first 55 inmates, all classified as being troublesome, occurred on Friday June 18, 1999. The death row transfer, which took ten months, was the largest transfer of condemned prisoners in history and was performed under heavy security.
In February 2000 two death row inmates took a 57-year-old female corrections officer hostage, forcing negotiations involving the warden. One of the hostage-takers, Ponchai Wilkerson (TDCJ#999011), was scheduled to be executed on March 14, 2000, and was, in fact, later executed on that date. The other, Howard Guidry, had no scheduled execution date. Guidry remains on death row.
On May 9, 2000, 33-year-old death row inmate Juan Salvez Soria (TDCJ#837), who was scheduled to be executed on July 26, 2000, pulled the arm of 78-year-old William Paul Westbrook, a prison chaplain from Livingston, into his cell. The offender tied a sheet around the chaplain's arm and tied the other end to a toilet; Soria began cutting Westbrook's arm with a razor blade. The offender nearly tore Westbrook's arm off. The authorities used tear gas to stop the attack. Authorities treated Soria's former cell as a crime scene and moved Soria to a more restricted area within the prison. Soria was executed on schedule.
The Texas Board unanimously approved giving former Terrell Unit its current name, Allan B. Polunsky Unit, on July 20, 2001. The board also voted to rename the Ramsey III Unit in Brazoria County, Texas to the Terrell Unit. The former namesake, a Dallas insurance executive named Charles Terrell, requested the name change because he did not want his name associated with death row because of questions about the administration of the death penalty. In addition he reportedly was ambivalent regarding capital punishment. In exchange, the former Ramsey III Unit was renamed the Terrell Unit.
In 2010, the TDCJ accused five men who were serving life sentences of attempting to break out of the unit. Robert Perkinson, author of Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire, said in 2010 that Polunsky "probably" is "the hardest place to do time in Texas." Perkinson added that while the prison is not in a "gloomy" location and that the facility is not "dangerously dilapidated", the prison's "existential" "problem" is the fact that it is the state death row.
In May 2013 Mother Jones magazine ranked Polunsky as one of the ten worst prisons in the US, based on Congressional testimony from former inmate Anthony Charles Graves (TDCJ Death Row#999127, released due to overturning of conviction on September 7, 2006) and research conducted by the magazine during a three-year period.
As of 2014 the prison had 691 employees and 2,936 prisoners. As of that year there were 279 men on Polunsky's death row.
The 584,000-square-foot (54,300 m2) facility has twenty-three buildings, on 472 acres (191 ha) of land. The surrounding area includes fields and forests. It has a capacity of about 3,900 prisoners.
David Casstevens of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram described Polunsky as "a somber complex of putty-gray concrete buildings trimmed in blue on 470 fenced acres." Miriam Rozen of the Houston Press said that the unit "sits amid the same kind of lush, green and hilly East Texas terrain that surrounds Governor Bush's lake house 100 miles to the north in Athens." Marc Bookman of Mother Jones said that the prison "looks as one might imagine a death row would look—a series of imposing concrete structures surrounded by excessive razor wire and four guard towers." Alex Hannaford of The Nation described it as a "bleak, foreboding complex".
The Polunsky Unit was designed to house more problematic and dangerous inmates; the officials designed the unit to be more secure than the older TDCJ units. Throughout its history the unit housed administrative segregation offenders (offenders in solitary confinement due to chronic misbehavior or violence). The building housing death row inmates is separate from the rest of the compound. Polunsky has a kitchen, a medical treatment clinic, psych interview rooms, and classification office space. Robert Perkinson, author of Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire, said that Polunsky, a white concrete building with blue steel supports, is "functionally designed and pleasantly asymmetrical" and that a person would mistake the building for a community college "if not for the three-inch window slits."
As of March 2013 about 290 male death row prisoners are housed in Polunsky. As of March 2013 eight are instead housed in Jester IV Unit, a psychiatric unit near Richmond, Texas.
The death row prisoners reside in Building 12, a two-story facility which opened in 1993 to house administrative segregation prisoners in solitary confinement. This building has three rectangular sections, and a recreational area, in the shape of the circle, is in the center of each section. The death row offenders live in single person, 60-square-foot (5.6 m2) cells, with each cell having a slit window and a concrete door. There is a "tempered air" system intended to keep inside temperatures at 85 degrees Fahrenheit or below. The death row buildings have a total of 504 cells. Prior to the relocation of the men's death row, prison authorities held non-death row "administrative segregation" prisoners in these cells. These prisoners were relocated when the men's death row changed locations.
Death row offenders receive no programming and are not allowed to work. Death row prisoners receive meals through bean slots, gates in the cell doors. Whenever an offender is taken from his cell, such as when the offender goes to take a shower, the offender is strip searched. The offenders receive individual recreation in a caged area. Depending on the custody level, death row offenders may be eligible for having radios. Death row inmates wear white jumpsuits, and the death row uniforms have the letters "DR" in black on the backs.
Perkinson said that the wait times that the offenders have before execution make the prison stressful for the inmates, visitors, and employees. Jonathan Bruce Reed (TDCJ Death Row #642, now TDJC#1743674 due to a reduction of the sentence to life imprisonment on November 3, 2011), a death row offender, said that the mentality of the death row unit is "we keep you kenneled until your date." Larry Todd, a spokesperson of the prison, said that "when a person walks on to death row, there is a sense of change. It's just a different atmosphere."
During a US Judiciary hearing on solitary confinement, Anthony Graves, a former prisoner in the death row who was released in 2010, said that conditions were making prisoners lose their sanity. In 2013 James Ridgeway and Jean Casella of Mother Jones stated that "Some have been known to commit suicide or waive their appeals rather than continue living under such conditions."
A 2012 book by Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian discusses the Polunsky Unit. According to one passage: "Whenever a condemned prisoner goes anywhere outside his cell, he must back up to the door, drop to his knees, and extend his hands backward through the narrow slot to be handcuffed. Then he stands, turns around, and waits for the door to be opened. The whole process of dropping to the knees and extending the arms backward is particularly difficult and painful for the older convicts with arthritis."
Jackson and Christian point out that the state laws for Texas, and most other states, do not lay out "the specific conditions under which condemned prisoners live."
Polunsky is a setting of the book Blow Fly by Patricia Cornwell.
All death row prisoners on this list are and were under death sentences given by the State of Texas.
Executed:Lawrence Russell Brewer (murderer of James Byrd, Jr.) – executed on September 21, 2011.
Peter Anthony Cantu (convicted of the murders of Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Peña); transferred from Ellis Unit – executed on August 17, 2010.
James Lee Clark, executed on April 11, 2007 at Huntsville Unit despite questions of Clark's IQ not meeting mental retardation
Jeffrey Dillingham - Perpetrator of the Murder of Caren Koslow, executed November 1, 2000
James Garrett Freeman - Executed January 7, 2016
Gustavo Julian Garcia Executed February 16, 2016
Humberto Leal Garcia, transferred from Ellis Unit – executed on July 7, 2011.
Juan Martin Garcia - Executed October 6, 2015
Gary Graham a.k.a. Shaka Sankofa - executed June 22, 2000
Jermaine Herron - executed on May 17, 2006.
Jesús Ledesma Aguilar - executed on May 24, 2006.
José Medellín (convicted of the murders of Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Peña) – Transferred from Ellis Unit – executed on August 5, 2008.
Donald Keith Newbury (member of the Texas 7)executed on February 4, 2015
Derrick Sean O'Brien (perpetrator of the murder of Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Peña); transferred from Ellis Unit – executed on July 11, 2006.
Ángel Maturino Reséndiz – executed on June 27, 2006.
George Rivas (member of the Texas 7)— executed on February 29, 2012
Michael Anthony Rodriguez (member of the Texas 7) – executed on August 14, 2008.
Tommy Lynn Sells – executed on April 3, 2014.
Shannon Charles Thomas – transferred from Ellis Unit and executed on November 16, 2005.
Edgar Tamayo, executed on January 22, 2014
Pablo Lucio Vasquez - executed on April 6, 2016
Adam Kelly Ward - Executed on March 22, 2016
Coy Wesbrook - Executed on March 9, 2016
Melvin White - Executed November 3, 2005
Ponchai Wilkerson – executed on March 13, 2000.
Cameron Todd Willingham – transferred from Ellis Unit – executed on February 17, 2004.
Steven Michael Woods, Jr. – executed on September 13, 2011.
Marvin Lee Wilson, executed on August 7, 2012 at Huntsville Unit.
Eric Lyle Williams - Murdered Kaufman County, Texas prosecutor Mark Hasse, along with his wife Cynthia. Williams was a former Justice of the Peace who was previously charged with theft. Williams killed Mr. Hasse out of revenge for the guilty verdict he received over the robbery charge, which was brought on by Mr. Hasse.
Awaiting execution:John David Battaglia
Billie Wayne Coble – convicted of Vicha family murders.
Joseph C. Garcia (member of the Texas 7)
Gabriel Hall a.k.a. Paul Hall
Randy Ethan Halprin (member of the Texas 7)
John William King (murderer of James Byrd, Jr.)
Hank Skinner, transferred from Ellis Unit
Faryion Wardrip - Serial Killer. Killed five women between 1984 and 1986.
Robert Lynn Pruett.
Patrick Henry Murphy, Jr. - Member of the Texas Seven.
Awaiting execution but moved out of Polunsky:Andre Thomas – Moved to the Jester IV Unit due to mental health issues
Matthew Dee Baker - former pastor convicted of killing his wife
Venancio Medellin - rapist charged with murders of Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Peña
Steven Jay Russell – repeated escapee and con artist.