The Huntsville Unit of the Texas State Penitentiary (Alexey Sergeev)

Every few years, from childhood until my late teens, my granddad would take me along with him to the small Texas town where he grew up—Normangee, population 522—to visit old relatives and even older graves. The drive took us up I-45, beyond the Houston sprawl, past pine forests, and eventually through Huntsville, epicenter of the state prison system. One of the city’s seven prisons was just off the interstate, and as we passed by I’d stare at the guard towers and barbed wire before turning my attention across the street to the Texas Prison Museum, which had its own mock guard towers in the parking lot. (“Prison” and “museum” were words that never seemed to go together.) Later, I learned that the museum’s central attraction was the wooden electric chair the state used for executions until 1964.

As I got older, I began to associate Huntsville not just with state prisons but with state executions. It always felt strange to pass through this place where human beings are routinely put to death and where many others currently sit on death row awaiting the same fate. Since the state resumed capital punishment in 1982, it has executed nearly six hundred inmates, averaging more than one execution per month. For my entire conscious life, it’s been a matter of routine to hear news of another upcoming execution in Huntsville.

How does it feel to live in this city dominated—and economically sustained—by the business of imprisonment? What would it be like to grow up here in the shadow of all those state executions? What stories do the people here have to tell? Richard Linklater explores these questions in Hometown Prison, a moving and intimate new documentary (streaming on Max), part of a series of HBO documentaries inspired by Lawrence Wright’s 2018 book God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State.

Capital punishment and the criminal-justice system may seem like unexpected subjects for Linklater, who’s best known for directing comedies and beloved indie-ish films like Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, and the Before trilogy. But over more than three decades of making movies, Linklater has never been content to stick with a single genre, subject matter, or approach, which is both part of his charm as a filmmaker and an explanation for his wildly uneven filmography. (Check out his IMDb page if you don’t believe me.) This documentary, though, stands out as a meaningful high point in his remarkable career.

Linklater grew up in Huntsville, moving there as a boy with his single mother and staying through college at Sam Houston State University. He played football and baseball with teammates who eventually ended up behind bars or working for the prison system. During his childhood, his mother dated a prison guard, was briefly married to an inmate, and later created a community program to provide food and welcoming conversation to newly released inmates. Riding around town on camera with Lawrence Wright, Linklater shares that he hasn’t been back to Huntsville since his mom’s memorial service, and this film—more personal essay than polemic—allows him to do what any of us might do when we return to where we grew up: drive by the places we lived, point out our personal landmarks, and talk to old friends.

Many of these friends have connections to the prison system. There’s his old classmate (and friend of his mother) who devoted her career to teaching in the prison system, trying to help her students “realize that they had worth and value.” There’s his former football teammate, sentenced to thirty years for financial crimes, who observed how the criminal justice system treats young people of color: “They make you sit in there until you plead guilty…. They just want a conviction.” And then there’s Bill Habern, an attorney friend (and one-time boyfriend) of Linklater’s mother, who devoted his life to fighting for prisoners’ rights.

Habern is one of the film’s standout characters. Bald and white-bearded, with thick-rimmed glasses, blue jeans, and a bolo tie, he greets Linklater outside his Huntsville home (“I think the last time I was here was like ’77,” Linklater laughs), which is adorned with a cattle skull and a sign that says LIFE IS TOO SHORT TO LIVE IN HOUSTON. Inside, he shows him around the new additions, while pointing out one of the “twelve to fifteen bullet holes in the house,” a reminder of those who oppose his life’s work.

Eighty-three years old at the time of the interview, Habern speaks about this work with passion and plainspoken intelligence, criticizing the “plantation mentality” he observed within the Texas prison system as a new lawyer in the seventies. Describing his first federal case—in which he defended Darrell Shaw, an African American student who’d been expelled from Huntsville High School for refusing to submit to corporal punishment—Habern says, “I didn’t know which end of the pencil to hold, but I was so pissed off about it. And that happened to me several times in my life. The situation would get to where I was so pissed off about it, I’d say, ‘We’re gonna do something about it.’”

Habern passed away last August, working almost until the very end of his days. His presence in Linklater’s film stays with me, exemplifying a rare combination of passionate service and good-humored humility. Here’s a person who was motivated by righteous anger without ever seeming to become self-righteous. His life chastens mine: Am I pissed off enough about the many government-sanctioned injustices occurring here in my home state? And am I going to do anything about it?

As I got older, I began to associate Huntsville not just with state prisons but with state executions.

I recognized myself much more in the local figures Linklater interviews who confess to ignoring or preferring not to think about the prisons and routine executions that loom over Huntsville. As one Sam Houston State student says, “It’s something that I don’t try to think about. There’s nothing I can do about it.” Or as Linklater himself says, “At some point, you don’t even really see it.”

One of the university students Linklater interviews, however, notes that “we don’t talk about it enough,” critiquing the way so many Texans respond to the steady drumbeat of state executions. Even those of us who are fully opposed to capital punishment may prefer to ignore the realities of criminal justice in our state, as we ignore so many other realities here. Feeling implicated by Linklater’s film, I remembered this troubling and ever-relevant observation made by William James: “We divert our attention from disease and death as much as we can; and the slaughter‐houses and indecencies without end on which our life is founded are huddled out of sight and never mentioned, so that the world we recognize officially in literature and in society is a poetic fiction far handsomer and cleaner and better than the world that really is.”


One strength of Hometown Prison, however, is the film’s interest in exploring the realities of capital punishment and, more specifically, the experiences of people who’ve been present for—or even assisted with—the executions. This includes Fred Allen, a Huntsville High alum who spent sixteen years working at the prison, many of them as part of the “tie-down team” for executions. Allen offers a haunting description of the process and his experiences. After sitting in a waiting area with the inmate for “eight or nine hours at a time,” talking with them and even playing checkers or chess, Allen would bring them to the execution chamber. “When I get to the gurney, I tell them, ‘Hop up on the gurney’…. I always took care of the left leg.” After watching the lethal injection and the inmate’s death, Allen and his co-workers had to “go in there and unstrap ’em.” Imagine being paid to carry out this work, month after month, while the state politicians who adamantly support the death penalty are nowhere in sight.

Eventually, Allen suffered an emotional breakdown. “You keep on doing that and you keep on doing that,” he says, “and eventually you’re gonna break.” The suffering he witnessed and experienced still seems visible in his face. Like a majority of Texans today—though perhaps a shrinking majority—Allen once supported the death penalty, seeing his job as simply carrying out the law of the land. But his experience eventually changed his views: “I’m definitely against it. Period. And that took me a while.” In his view now, life without parole is both an appropriately severe punishment and a way to account for potential errors in the judicial process. “If you find out something, you got the opportunity to make it right,” he says. “After the execution, you don’t have the opportunity to make it right anymore.”

As Linklater himself observes, “The death penalty takes one tragedy, a murder, and expands the pain and suffering to include so many others—all the people involved in the legal and criminal appeals process that get dragged slowly to the death chamber, all the obligatory witnesses, and all the people with various jobs in the system”—and so on, in an ever-expanding circle of pain and suffering. Noting that the Eighth Amendment bans cruel and unusual punishment, Linklater poses one of the key questions of his film: “What could be more cruel and certainly unusual than to have to play a part in or witness another person’s murder, however state sanctioned?”

Inevitably, with a topic of this magnitude, Linklater’s film has its shortcomings. He describes the capital-punishment system as “arbitrary, racist, and classist,” but doesn’t delve much into these inequalities, particularly when it comes to race and criminal justice. He also mentions the state’s execution of an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, but doesn’t actually say anything about the case. And he only barely touches on the heartbreaking experiences and ongoing suffering of the victims’ families in death-row cases.

While the film doesn’t tackle these issues in depth, it shines in its unexpected breadth. Linklater spends moments with family members awaiting their loved one’s execution and a young boy waiting outside the prison for his dad’s release (“He’s changed and he said that his, like, number-one priority would be me…taking care of me and stuff”). He takes us inside the professional and domestic life of a young Hispanic American female prison guard as well as a Nigerian-born high-school student and aspiring model named Tega, whose father, along with much of the local Nigerian immigrant community, works for the prison system. (Tega also serves as the Huntsville High mascot, leading to the documentary’s most charming line: “And then I became Buzzy.”) Generated by Linklater’s warm and open way of approaching his subjects, these empathetic excursions offer their own kind of complexity.

Last year, the number of executions increased nationally for the second year in a row, and Texas played a large part in the increase. But the number of states that impose death sentences and conduct executions continues to shrink. Linklater worries that his home state may one day be the last remaining holdout. Early in the film, we see a chilling clip from the early eighties: a raucous Huntsville crowd cheering on an execution, including a young woman who smiles and chews gum from atop someone’s shoulders, as if she’s attending a concert. Four decades later, such scenes no longer accompany the death penalty in Texas. The state’s next scheduled execution is June 26, and it’s very likely no one will cheer. In fact, most of us won’t even notice.

Burke Nixon is a lecturer in the Program in Writing and Communication at Rice University, where he teaches a course called Fiction and Empathy.

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