Week In The Life, Thomas Miller-El, Huntsville Prison, Texas: Fear is Death Row's most common visitor

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE ONLY way Thomas Miller-El can keep track of time is by the temperature in his prison cell. It is his way of watching the weeks go by. Now, in late autumn, the days are cool. In winter there are a few nights when frost will form on the ground outside and he will feel the chill nipping his fingers and toes.

In summer things are much worse because this is Huntsville, east Texas, where the heat and humidity are intolerable from May to October, and Miller- El's home is a cramped cell on Death Row in the Ellis Unit where there is no air conditioning.

"This summer was the worst I can remember. We had two weeks when the temperature outside was over 100F and it is always hotter in the cages," he said. "One guy died in here this year; heat just killed him. You can't do nothing but lie there and sweat it out."

NOT THAT Miller-El has much else to do in an average week, although during the 13 years he has been here (he arrived when he was 34) he has forced himself to keep busy. When he first arrived, having been sentenced to death for the murder and robbery of Douglas Walker, a 25-year-old clerk at a Holiday Inn in Dallas in 1985, he thought the other inmates already looked dead. They had lost the will to live and watched television all day or read magazines.

"It is very easy to lose all ambition in here and turn in on yourself," he said, but something inside prevented him from giving in. He still believes there might be a fragment of hope that his death sentence will be commuted to life imprisonment or even that he will get a new trial.

He is eloquent and informed, surprisingly so as his education ended at 14. He keeps up with events as best he can with the limited resources on offer. He is philosophical too, portraying life as a wheel that you ride until "some of us fall off and end up here. Then all we can do is watch everybody else riding the wheel while we're standing still."

Miller-El has little control over his week's activities as most revolve around guards telling him what to do. They shout at him to rise at 4 or 5am, later on weekends, and to go to bed at 10pm. He is told to wash and eat breakfast. At least once a week one of the guards will insult him, usually racially. Periodically a siren sounds and he is counted with the other inmates.

There was a time when he was more headstrong and was punished, spending weeks on end in solitary confinement, but to keep his sanity he began behaving better. He joined the prison works programmes to stem the monotony and was made a barber. Now at least once a week he cuts inmates' hair. He lowered his head to show off his own new cut, a shave so close that in the half-light of the visiting chamber he looked bald.

"As you can see, I'm pretty good at it," he said. Standing 6ft 4in tall he is a natural for the basketball court and plays when he is allowed, and when he can drag others away from their televisions.

ONCE A week his wife, Dorothy, visits. She was convicted in the same incident of attempted murder and served six years of a 15-year sentence. Their eyes meet through glass and they whisper through a wire mesh screen, about what she has been doing and the latest stage of his appeal process.

"It's good to see her now because for a long time when I was first in here and she was also in jail I didn't have one visitor. Nobody came," he said.

Some days he tries to write a letter but fear grips him and his hand shakes too much for the words to be legible.

MUCH OF his time in recent weeks has been spent setting up a newsletter written by Death Row inmates but available to the public as well as prisoners. It is his way of getting them to reach out to the world beyond the cell bars.

"It is a very small, closed world in here and it is full of people who have had very few life experiences. Some of them have never had relationships or had sex with a woman ... the only way they are going to find out anything is by communicating with the public."

MILLER-EL tries to fill his weeks to fend off thoughts of death. Remembering the words of his lawyer, who had told me it was rare for a prisoner to have 10 execution dates and still be alive, I thought I was interviewing a charmed man. But Miller-El is far from charmed. A week in his life is just another stretch on a tortuous journey of fear and loneliness at the end of which lies an ignominious death which can be attended by his victim's family yet not his own.

A fit punishment for a heinous crime, Texas would say, where most people back the death penalty.

HE IS reluctant to see me leave. He has, after all, got nothing pressing planned for the rest of the afternoon.