When Ardyth Broadrick Sohn moved to Huntsville, Texas, in 2000 to serve as an endowed scholar at the university located there, she was fascinated by the campus’s proximity to the nearby prison.
It was four blocks away from Texas’ infamous “Huntsville Unit” prison facility, where, at one time, more legal executions took place than in any other location in the world.
“When I arrived, I was astounded that I seemed to be the only one on campus who would pause when the whistles blew to count the inmates,” recalls Sohn, now the director of the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies. She was surprised at how little attention the prison seemed to garner from her colleagues.
“I knew that the prison and the university [Sam Houston State University] were both important to the economy of the town of Huntsville. Beyond that, I didn’t see more than a superficial relationship between the town, the university community, and the prison – at least initially.”
As time went on, however, Sohn realized that she was wrong.
“There was actually a great deal of interaction between all these entities,” says Sohn, who immediately recognized the potential for research on this subject. “As we began to explore the fabric of the community, we learned just how complex that relationship is.”
That complexity is illustrated in Sohn’s book, Prison City: Life with the Death Penalty in Huntsville, Texas.
Sohn was joined in her research by Ruth Massingill, a native Texan and a communication department colleague at the time. The two began interviewing Huntsville residents with the help of communication students.
Through their research, Sohn and her team learned of some fascinating connections between locals and the prison. They met a criminal justice professor who opposes capital punishment and, thus, keeps public vigil outside the death house for every execution. They interviewed faculty members who teach courses to prisoners as part of their service to the community, as well as students who work as guards or support staff at the prison to pay for college.
They also talked with residents who would host members of the victims’ families – as well as the families of those being executed – during the week preceding each execution.
“Town leaders, including the former warden, who now runs the new prison museum, are thoughtful, pragmatic individuals who are well aware of the role their community plays in Texas criminal justice,” Sohn notes.
Sohn and her colleague also examined media interaction at the prison. Members of the community frequently encountered “outsiders” – including some very hostile international or national reporters – visiting town for “an insultingly quick take” on the Huntsville Unit prison and the surrounding community.
“The research took me on a journey that tested cultural boundaries,” Sohn says. “We began the book wondering how this town could so comfortably coexist with the prison, given its reputation and activities. Our research led us to a much greater understanding of how these people have adapted to what is essentially the primary industry in their community. It has implications for all communities, particularly those where prisons reside.”