We didn’t have long. After all, there were 198 men over two days to see, to voice some encouragement and words of hope, and to provide them with a Bible, two books and some hard candy.
There’s nothing like urgency to get to the point.
My intro went something like this: “There are five of us here who came to Death Row, and we drove nearly 600 miles from Amarillo just to see all of you. We want you to know that you are not forgotten, that there are those who care for you and are praying for you.
“We have a New Testament Bible, two books that we believe will help you and a roll of Life Savers.”
There would be some additional muffled conversation through the windows of the thick doors before we would move on to the next one. Most often, it was gratitude, sometimes amazement, for taking a full day to reach the Polunsky Unit. There was initial curiosity of the two other books, and a realization that some hadn’t had a simple roll of Life Savers in 25 years.
“This matters, man,” said Steven Long, on Death Row since 2006. “It really matters.”
Tom Foran, business administrator at First Baptist Church, and I were among five who had similar conversations over two days in late March. Foran also leads FBC’s prison/jail ministry, of which 19 members teach weekly classes and pray with the men at the nearby Clements and Neal units, as well as the Potter County and Randall County jails.
This was not a nearby trip. We joined Bob Manning, Larry Miles, and Tim Clifton from another congregation in an outreach we found later had never been done before on Death Row.
We were in teams of two and three, and with the help of guards Brandon Huff and Jake Turner and offender Corey Thomas, our mission was simple, but historical:
To speak with every offender there and provide them with some hope through Christ, a word of encouragement, a small gift, and two books, “Freedom From Your Past,” and “Ten Steps Toward Christ.” This was the idea of Miles, a member of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice board of directors since 2014.
“This has been bubbling in me for about a year,” Miles said. “In all prisons, there’s hopelessness and despair, and Death Row is hopelessness and despair on steroids. There had to be something we could do for them.”
He shared the idea with others. Foran tried to get to the heart of a trip to Death Row.
“Tom asked me a question – ‘Can we put something in the hands of every man on Death Row and possibly change their lives?’” Miles said.
All of it came together quickly. Brent Womble, FBC member and active in the local Gideons chapter, helped secure more than 200 Bibles. There were 400 combined copies of the two books, plus more than 200 rolls of Life Savers. Miles smoothly worked with top TDCJ administration, as well as those at Polunsky, to get permission to go onto Death Row on an assigned date.
“I’ve made this statement before on various projects,” Miles said, “but if this is God’s baby, He’s going to kiss it. And He kissed it.”
The dates: March 26 and 27.
THERE WAS MUTUAL RESPECT
“I had some reservations because I didn’t know what to expect,” said Manning, president of Panhandle NUC, Inc., which has raised $2 million in private funds to build chapels at the Neal and Clements Units.
“But there was also this anticipation of a new adventure and new part of our ministry that had not been done before. We just hoped, in some way, we could make a difference in men’s lives.”
On that Monday, we unloaded all of the books in two fold-out wagons. We prayed, went through Polunsky security, and went inside. It was there that we met Warden Michael Butcher, Assistant Warden Perez, and others at Polunsky.
“Warden Butcher is a good man, and in my humble opinion, he and his staff could not have done a better job to assist us,” Miles said. “I thought it would take us two 14-hour days, but with their help, we got almost all of it done in one day.”
Indeed, Butcher and staff were as accommodating as could be in this rare trip inside Death Row. They were ready to help us in any way.
With guards Huff and Turner split among the two groups, we headed toward Building 12 and the pods on Death Row. Those on A pod have an execution date.
One of the guards would tap on the glass, and announce to each man that he had a visitor. Contact with family is infrequent, and so just a voice, a person from the outside, brought the men to the door for some human contact. After all, for 23 hours a day, they are confined to their cells.
“It was more solemn and somber than I thought,” Clifton said, “but they were more receptive than I thought, too. I felt there was mutual respect, which kind of surprised me.”
Combined estimates were that only 10 of 200 on Death Row waved us on. So 95 percent were receptive. Either Huff or Turner would open the slot, place the books and Life Savers on top and let them take it. We’d then talk to them in the time we could.
“This means a lot to me because I’m a believer,” said Paul Storey, on Death Row for 10 years.
“Hey, man, I got some Life Savers. I hope these are Life Savers,” said Elijah Joubert, holding up his books.
George McFarland, on Death Row for 26 years, and I had a meaningful though short conversation through the door. “Christ’s love for you,” I said, “is deeper than an ocean.”
“One second, one hour, one day at a time,” he said. “God is still on his throne.”
THE LORD BLESSED IT
We had time on the second day to visit individually with any of the men on Death Row. Foran was struck by Irving Davis, whose voice, he said, “was two octaves lower than James Earl Jones.”
I saw more light than most in the face of David Renteria, and asked if he wanted to talk one-on-one on Tuesday. He quickly said yes.
The next day, Foran and I had visits of about a half-hour. Davis is 36, and has been on Death Row for 18 years, half his life. His difficult home life had him spiraling out of control by the time he was in his teens. He believed in a higher authority, someone bigger than him.
“He spoke of his brief commitment to Satanism, but quickly believed Satan is a fool,” said Foran. “He spoke of his all-in conversion to Christ in 2014 after confessing that he could not continue on the path he was on.”
Davis’ daily activities include prayer, Bible study, listening to Christian music on his radio – an earned privilege – and witnessing to others.
“As we closed, I asked him to sing something for me, but he declined with a grin,” Foran said. “I told him, ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’ would sound awfully good coming out of your mouth. He said to send him the lyrics, which I did.”
Renteria is from El Paso, who has a father and sister in law enforcement. He’s been on Death Row for 15 years. Renteria, who had read three chapters of “Freedom From Your Past” the previous night, said he has difficulty forgiving himself of his past.
“David, God forgave you a long time ago,” I said. “Jesus died for you, for your sins. I just pray that you can forgive yourself.”
Renteria said he is a Christian and has interaction with some of those on his pod. “Be a light,” I encouraged. “Grow where you are planted. Let others see Christ in you.” We touched fingers and agreed to correspond.
Our group also toured Polunsky’s impressive craft shop, where offenders excel at making saddles and boots, leather covers, remodeling furniture, key fobs and key chains, medals, custom-made travel coffee mugs, and airbrush paintings. The list is a long one.
We also talked to the men in the gym converted into a chapel. It was a welcome contrast of hope when we’d often been clouded by despair.
But the men on Death Row were what stayed with all of us. We aren’t naïve enough to believe that change is sweeping through Building 12, but we aren’t limiting God either.
“This is why Apostle Paul said some days we just plant and water,” Miles said, “and the Holy Spirit does the rest. That takes the pressure off. We won’t know today or tomorrow, in fact, we may never know the full extent of our time here. But we know the Lord blessed it.”
Written by: Jon Mark Beilue