If Willie Pondexter, Jr., is executed on Tuesday, part of the reason will be that the truth about his rehabilitation and dangerousness (or lack thereof) has been kept under lock and key. When it comes to assessing these factors of a person on death row, we should listen and give weight to the opinions of the prison officers who know him best.
But that doesn’t ordinarily happen because there is code of silence among corrections officers enforced by their supervisors and employers. The average correctional officer fears both the prison hierarchy — it could ruin his career or get him fired to say something out of line — and the corrections officers who keep prisoners and other correctional officers in their place through violence and other terrible means. The average correctional officer lives every day of his career with an absolute fear of speaking up.
I know because I worked in Florida prisons for almost 25 years, starting out as a corrections officer and rising through the ranks to supervise three state prisons, including Florida’s death row. I also know it would be very unlikely to find a Texas prison warden willing to blow the whistle on the unspoken, but enforced, code of silence.
I admire the few rare corrections officers who step forward and give decision-makers critical information, especially about clemency. In Pondexter’s case, one such courageous officer came forward and reported that Pondexter is not a danger to anyone, stays calm even in challenging situations, does everything that is asked of him and “could safely live out his days in a structured environment.” In fact, this correctional officer said, if Pondexter were a free man, he would be willing to give him a job working on his property.
This is the kind of information the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, the governor and the courts need to hear, but almost never do.
Significantly, this officer also said: “You would be hard-pressed to find anyone to say something bad about Pondexter.
If people are not talking, it is probably because they are scared to lose their jobs or scared of being written up.” This remark about the code of silence that prohibits corrections officers from speaking the truth, even when a man’s life is at stake, is consistent with all I know from my quarter-century in corrections.
There are likely dozens of other corrections officers who feel the same way and believe Pondexter’s life should be spared. They are not cooperating in Pondexter’s clemency case because they are afraid of being disciplined, losing their jobs, health care and pensions because they did what they thought was right, even on their own time. As a result, Pondexter is being denied the ability to investigate, gather evidence and present his case for clemency.
The recommendation of whether Pondexter lives or dies should be a decision for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. The decision of whether to accept or reject that recommendation should be the governor’s. In a very real sense, however, this decision has been taken away from them, the legally authorized decision-makers, because the code of silence keeps critical information from the light of day.
Texas has the right to execute people convicted of murder. But if it sets up a process to make sure only the worst offenders receive the death penalty, it must let the process work.
It is an irrevocable wrong to send a man to his death without giving a fair hearing to favorable information about his demeanor, rehabilitation and lack of dangerousness to prison employees and other inmates. But that’s exactly what may happen on Tuesday.
McAndrew is the former warden of three Florida state prisons and an expert in prison and jail issues throughout the South, including Texas.