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It's All in the Execution

At the Texas Prison Museum, There's No Getting Out -- Without a Stop at the Gift Shop

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2004; Page C01


In display cases topped with razor wire, the Texas Prison Museum has a billy club, a ball and chain and an authentic "Death Row" baseball cap. It also has nasty-looking knives made by inmates, a Thompson submachine gun used by guards, and a photo gallery of prison gang tattoos.

The museum contains a jail cell, where visitors can pay $3 and get their picture taken wearing a striped prison uniform. Best of all, it has "Ol' Sparky," the oak electric chair in which 361 Texas felons were executed between 1924 and 1964.

Though the Texas Prison Museum never housed inmates, it's designed to resemble a prison, complete with a fake guard tower manned by a fake guard. (Mark Matson For The Washington Post)

What the museum does not have -- at least on this drizzly fall Thursday -- is visitors. The place attracted 23,000 paying customers last year, but right now there's not a single tourist.

"We have some really good days and some days like this," says Jim Willett, the museum's director.

Dressed in bluejeans and a blue shirt, Willett is standing in the gift shop, where visitors can buy key chains made by inmates or a T-shirt that says, "PEN STATE: 5-Year, 10-Year, 20-Year and Lifetime Degrees."

Attendance peaks in summer, Willett says, when American families are on vacation and looking for roadside fun. But winter days sometimes get busy, too, especially when schools bring busloads of students, some as young as 10.

"They find it neat, looking at all the guns and the electric chair," says Willett. "Of course, kids that age, they all want to get in the cell and see what it's like. They seem to enjoy themselves."

Willett, 55, is a friendly, gray-haired fellow who speaks in a Texas drawl and emphasizes his strongest opinions with "gosh" and "golly." He's uniquely qualified for his job: He worked in Texas prisons for 30 years, ending his career as warden of "the Walls," the Huntsville Unit prison where Texas executes murderers. In three years, Willett presided over 89 executions -- more than any living American.

"We did 40 in one year," he says. "That set a record."

That was in 2000, when George W. Bush was governor of the state that executes more convicts than any other, about a third of the executions in the country. Willett retired early in 2001. But hanging around the house bored him, so he volunteered at the museum, then housed in an old bank downtown.

In 2002, the museum moved to its fancy new quarters out on Interstate 45: a red brick building designed to resemble a prison, complete with a fake guard tower manned by a fake guard holding a fake rifle. A few months later, the museum's board named Willett director.

"It's been fun," he says. "I enjoy it."

His favorite display is the collection of weapons seized from prisoners over the years. It includes brass knuckles made from razor blades, a shotgun made out of pipes, and a blackjack made by a prisoner who scraped lead paint off the prison walls, painstakingly squeezing it into a tight, heavy ball about the size of a plum and tying it inside a sock.

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