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Huntsville Unit (HV)

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Texas, USA
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22 ha
prison / deportated / labor camp

Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville or Huntsville Unit (HV), nicknamed "Walls Unit", is a Texas state prison located in Huntsville, Texas, United States. The approximately 54.36-acre (22.00 ha) facility, near Downtown Huntsville, is operated by the Correctional Institutions Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, administered as within Region I. The facility, the oldest Texas state prison, opened in 1849.

The unit houses the State of Texas execution chamber. It is the most active execution chamber in the United States, with 549 (as of April 1, 2018) executions since 1982, when the death penalty was reinstated in Texas (see List of individuals executed in Texas).


The prison's first inmates arrived on October 1, 1849. The unit was named after the City of Huntsville. Robert Perkinson, the author of Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, wrote that the unit was, within Texas, "the first public work of any importance".

Originally Huntsville Unit was only for white Texans; the only penalties available to black Texans were whipping and hanging. During the American Civil War, prisoners at Huntsville produced tents and uniforms for Confederate forces at the prison textile factory. After the Civil War ended, Huntsville Unit was the only prison in the former Confederate States of America to remain. Perkinson stated that the prison became, within the state, the "first racially integrated public institution".

Originally women in the Texas Prison System were housed in the Huntsville Unit. Beginning in 1883 women were housed in the Johnson Farm, a privately owned cotton plantation near Huntsville.

Historically the prison served as the administrative headquarters of the Texas Prison System and the Texas Department of Corrections; the superintendent and the other executive officers worked in the prison, and all of the central offices of the system's departments and all of the permanent records were located in the prison.

In 1974, the prison was the site of an eleven-day siege, one of the longest hostage-taking sieges in United States history. Three armed inmates (Fred Carrasco, Ignacio Cuevas, and Rudy Dominquez) held several hostages in the education department. The ring leader, Carrasco, had been a porter in the chapel. Cuevas usually worked in the inmate dining hall. Ten hostages were employees of the prison system: two were educators, and one was a guard. Later on, the prison chaplain would also become a hostage. Four prisoners were also held as hostages. On the final day, the inmates tried to escape using chalkboards and hostages as shields. Dominquez was killed in the attempt. Carrasco killed Elizabeth Beseda, then shot himself. Julia Standley was also killed that day. Ignacio Cuevas was executed on May 23, 1991, for her murder.


While the prison is officially the Huntsville Unit, the prison's red brick walls lead to the nickname "Walls Unit." The prison is 160 miles (260 km) southeast of Dallas and 70 miles (110 km) north of Houston. The original cellblock had been closed for several years prior to 2011. The electric chair was previously in a building adjacent to the institution's east wall. When the death row was in Huntsville, it was in the East Building.


The warden of the Huntsville Unit is in charge of the maintenance of the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery, the TDCJ prisoner cemetery. Prisoners from this unit are assigned to maintain the cemetery.

Release center

The Huntsville Unit serves as one of the TDCJ's regional release centers for male prisoners. Most male prisoners are released to be closer to their counties of conviction, approved release counties, and/or residences. Male prisoners who have detainers, are classified as sex offenders, have electronic monitoring imposed by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and/or have certain special conditions of the Super Intensive Supervision Program (SISP) are released from the Huntsville Unit, regardless of their counties of conviction, residences, and/or approved release counties. Rick Thaler, the director of the Correctional Institutions Division, predicted in 2010 that the Huntsville Unit, which serves as the regional release center for Greater Houston, will remain the TDCJ's largest release center. Throughout the history of the Texas Prison System 90% of male prisoners were sent to the unit for the final portions of their sentences before being released. Starting in September 2010 the TDCJ instead began to use regional release centers for male prisoners.

Death penalty

The Huntsville Unit is the location of the State of Texas execution chamber. The TDCJ houses male death row inmates in the Polunsky Unit and female death row inmates in the Mountain View Unit.

Between 1819 and 1923 the method of execution was hanging until Texas authorized the use of the electric chair; the use of the electric chair ended the execution of death sentences by counties in Texas. The chair– often euphemistically called "Old Sparky" was constructed by inmates.[29] Between 1924 and 1964, 362 inmates were executed by electrocution. The chair now resides at the Texas Prison Museum, located on Interstate 45 on the north side of Huntsville which features displays of historical items from the prison system, including shanks and other items confiscated from inmates.

On one occasion the prison used a facility below the current warden's office as a death row for women. Emma "Straight Eight" Oliver, the first female death row inmate under Texas state jurisdiction, was sentenced to death in 1949. In 1951 her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Subsequently the Goree Unit and then the Mountain View Unit were used as women's death rows.

Execution procedure

Inmates scheduled for execution are brought from death row to the Walls Unit early in the afternoon of their scheduled execution. Unlike other states, Texas prohibits inmates from special meals (since 2011), because of abuse of the privilege by past prisoners and the rationale that they did not offer a meal to their victims and therefore should not be allowed a special recognition. Inmates can, but are not required to, make a last statement prior to their execution. By law executions are scheduled to begin after 6:00 p.m. Huntsville (Central) time. The inmates are housed until that time about 30 feet (9.1 m) from the door of the execution chamber; the Texas Death House is located at the northeast corner of the Walls Unit, just below the #1 picket. There is no law prohibiting multiple executions in a single day, but this has not happened since January 1995.

The execution chamber is a 9-foot (2.7 m) by 12-foot (3.7 m) room with turquoise walls and a gurney. When Jim Willett was the warden of Huntsville Unit, he added a pillow to the gurney. Two adjacent rooms, which view into the execution room through glass windows, house two groups. One room is reserved for the family or families of the crime victim(s). The other is for the family of the condemned.

For a listing of people executed in Huntsville Unit, see Category:People executed by Texas for all entries 1923 and later.

Cultural references

  • "Huntsville", a song on Merle Haggard's 1971 album, Someday We'll Look Back references being sent to Huntsville Prison.
  • The Getaway, a 1972 Sam Peckinpah film, which starred Steve McQueen, was filmed here.
  • Cross Canadian Ragweed has a song that is about the prison called "Walls of Huntsville" on their 2002 self-titled album.
  • Steve Earle recorded "Ellis Unit One" (after the Ellis Unit) for the 1995 film Dead Man Walking. The songs lyrics focus on the effect of the death penalty on the guards that carry it out. Earle has been a vocal critic against the death penalty.
  • Kevin Costner portrayed the convict Butch Haynes in the 1993 film A Perfect World, who escaped from Huntsville Prison.
  • Texas Country artist Cody Johnson refers to the prison in his song "Texas Kind of Way", with the lyric "might as well just lock me up in Huntsville, if your memory's here to stay".
  • In the 2007 film No Country for Old Men, it was mentioned that the Sheriff in Terrell County, Texas had sentenced a man to death in the Huntsville Unit for killing a 14-year-old girl.
  • Subject of a song by country singer Bobby Bare - Back Home In Huntsville Again
  • In Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown", the characters played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro first met while doing time in Huntsville.
  • In the 2003 video game Freelancer, the LPI Huntsville is a prison ship orbiting Houston planet in the Texas system.
  • David Allen Coe refers to the "Huntsville prison walls so high" in his song Houston, Dallas, San Antone.
  • The 2003 film, The Life of David Gale, was shot in multiple places, including Huntsville, Texas. In the film, Kevin Spacey played the eponymous character, a college professor and longtime activist against capital punishment who is sentenced to death for killing a fellow capital punishment opponent.
  • Jason Boland and the Stragglers released a song off 2015 CD Squelch titled Christmas in Huntsville.



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