Warden speaks out 89 executions later
Retired warden Jim Willet told his story of cellblocks, last words and 89 executions on Feb. 9 at Tarleton State University. He told his tales of life and death from inside the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville (Walls Unit) for the Tarleton community to hear in the lecture hall in the Business Building. There were not enough seats in the room for all that attended the speech.
Willet said he had no intention of staying in the prison system after being hired at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville (Walls Unit) when attending Sam Houston State. He said it was the close-knit group of men he worked with that made the job enjoyable. He also said that the days were fairly easy, because the inmates did most of the work.
Willet worked his way up the ladder to the assistant warden position in a unit made of 17 to 21-year-olds and then moved to the diagnostic unit where he would see every inmate that entered the prison. The prison then offered Willet to be the warden of the Walls Unit where he would oversee executions. At first, he denied the offer; he said he had a problem seeing that it was a raise in pay to give the signal of death. Willet said he later reconsidered with the attitude, “I can do this job, and I can treat these fellas as good as can be treated on their last day.”
When Willet performed his first execution, he said it was “unfortunate,” because he had never witnessed one before. The execution rules and procedures were never written down but have been passed down from warden to warden by word of mouth.
Inmates have not lived in the Walls Unit since 1966, due to overcrowding. Now, the only time the inmates see the inside of the Walls Unit is on the day of their execution. Once an inmate entered their holding cellblock, Willet said he would talk to them about how the afternoon would go and would get a feel for how they were going to act when going to the death chamber. He would ask the inmate if they had a last statement and how he would know when they were done so the execution could begin.
Willet’s secret signal to start the execution was him taking off his glasses. One inmate had uncovered Willet’s secret signal. When discussing his final statement, the inmate said he would finish his statement and tell Willet to take off his glasses. This revealed to Willet that the inmate was aware of his secret signal, which he said shocked him.
Willet said he told the inmate, “You better not do that.” However, he said that his next thought was, “’What am I doing saying something threatening towards this inmate when we are going to execute him in two hours? I have nothing to threaten this fella’ with.’”
Willet said he would grant the doomed souls a cigarette if it were requested, even though tobacco had been outlawed in the Walls Unit. Willet said the people above him never said anything, and he knew they could smell it. Some inmates would smoke a pack in just four or five hours.
Before Willet left the cellblock, he would offer to the inmate a final phone call. There are two calls that Willet said he will never forget. One inmate had a phone call set up to call his brother in Alabama who was also on death row. Another inmate called his mother, who was an inmate at the prison in Gatesville.
After the phone call, Willet said the inmates are left in the cellblock with a chaplain and two security guards and are allowed a 30-minute visit with either a lawyer or religious leader.
86 out of the 89 executions Willet attended went mostly as planned. When moving the inmate from the cellblock to the death chamber, there were three instances where the officers had an issue. One inmate refused to walk into the death chamber on his own. Two officers had to physically pick him up as if the inmate was sitting in a chair. Another inmate said he was going to resist but never physically fought the officers. The last inmate fought with all of his might.
“May have been the sorriest inmate I’ve ever dealt with in 30 years,” said Willet.
Once the inmate sat down, they could start their final statement. There was one statement that Willet remembers well. The inmate said, “Okay, warden. Let’s go. And one more thing: How ‘bout them Cowboys?!”
Willet said that a bittersweet moment he witnessed in the death chamber was when an inmate expressed his mouth was very dry. The executioner pulled out a piece of candy and handed it to the chaplain who then took the candy and placed it in the inmate’s mouth. As the inmate was sucking on the candy, the warden realized what had been given to the inmate—a Lifesaver. Willet said that the inmate replied, “’I’m trying real hard, but I don’t think it’s going to work.’”
Willet had an inmate near the 89th execution who was a drug addict, which caused the doctors trouble to find a vein. The inmate on the gurney pointed at his leg and ensured the IV would work there. Willet thought it was a little weird that the man told the people where to stick the needle to get along with the execution.
Willet said he once met an inmate with the “oddest remorse.” He denied being guilty the whole time he was in prison, but he told the chaplain before his execution that he did commit the crime. He couldn’t come to terms with telling his family, because they stood by his side the whole time. He said he couldn’t disappoint them, and his last words were him claiming his innocence.
Once an inmate was finished with their final statement, Willet said he would then give his signal to start the execution. Willet would then receive a signal from another officer that all the valves were on. They would wait about three minutes before calling in the doctors to pronounce the inmate dead. Willet said that during his first execution, it was the longest three minutes of his life.
“I can’t say that it didn’t bother me, it did. I didn’t like dealing with those things. I was glad when I retired. I was mostly glad ‘cause I didn’t have to deal with it anymore. But I’m a person who sleeps well at night, and I don’t think I lost one minute of sleep over any of those. These days, I don’t think about those things,” said Willet.
In 1999, the Walls Unit conducted 40 executions in one year and once did 17 executions in one day.
Willet’s advice for a warden is to treat the men like decent people and to take care of the staff, making sure that none of the process is bothering them. He said he even prayed for some of the inmates while they were being executed. Willet did have trouble with the idea of executing someone from a religious standpoint but believes he’s much more at ease now than he was then.
Willet retired 15 years ago and immediately went to work for the prison museum. He joked that he doesn’t have to worry about anyone escaping. Willet thinks in the next two years he will fully retire.
He said he had a class ask him if he thought Texas would ever go back to the electric chair. Willet responded, “Well, I hope not, because it’s one of the main attractions at the prison museum.”