PRISON LIFE GOES ON DISPLAY

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From: Tom Hardin 
To: Iron Cage 
Sent: Saturday, September 18, 2004 12:10 PM
Subject: [IronCage] Tx Iron Cage: Prison life goes on display

Texas prison life goes on display
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Posted on Sat, Sep. 18, 2004
Texas prison life goes on display

By Art Chapman
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

HUNTSVILLE - Cancer had ravaged Hugh Kennedy's jaw by the time author Patrick McConal found him living alone near Whitney.

Kennedy, a former Texas convict during the tumultuous Depression era, could speak, but his words tumbled out half-formed and nearly indistinguishable.

McConal was working on a book about the 1934 Texas Death House Escape, and he hoped to get first-hand information from Kennedy. That seemed unlikely until Kennedy tossed a sack full of prison photos across the table at McConal.

"I guess I won't be needing these," he said haltingly. "I'm dying of cancer."

The photographs were a shock.  Not in their composition -- they showed a stark and tedious daily prison life -- but in the fact that they existed at all. No prisoner would ever be allowed to keep a camera, prison officials say.

To have the film smuggled out and prints slipped back in seems unimaginable.

Yet the photos were there, loosely gathered in a Sears paper bag.

With the help of the pictures, and the patience to carefully listen to Kennedy's muffled stories, McConal was able to finish his research and publish his book. He then honored Kennedy's request to keep the photos from public view until after his death. They remained in a safe for more than four years.

Kennedy died two months ago. The photos are now in the hands of the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville.

Jim Willett, a retired senior warden with the Texas prison system and now director of the museum, remembered the day McConal called to tell him about the photos.

"Usually, he just e-mailed me," Willett said. "But this time, he wanted me to call. After we talked, I hung up and told my wife, 'I don't think those photos could be real.' I was shocked."

Willett said the museum is putting together an exhibit on Kennedy and his photos. It should be ready by the first of the year.

Kennedy was not a notorious Texas gangster.

His longest sentence in the state pen came from cattle rustling. But he was in several key places during his stay with the state.

He witnessed the notorious escape from the Eastham Farm Unit in January 1934. The escape was orchestrated by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.

Months later, Kennedy was transferred to the Walls Unit in Huntsville. In July of the same year, the infamous Death House Escape took place. Again, Kennedy watched the events unfold.

Kennedy's photos don't reflect either of these dangerous escapes in which guards and convicts were killed. But his snapshots do tell of daily life in a prison system that was once called "the most damnable place on Earth."

The period was from 1934 to 1944, and in Texas it was a time of extreme brutality behind prison walls. Stories abound concerning those times. There are tales of prisoners, so tired, so bone weary from working in the cane fields and cotton rows, that they would chop their own toes off with a sharpened hoe.

They would take cane knives and slit their heels, anything that would keep them from returning to the work camps. Food was scant and putrid.

Punishment was quick and brutal. Guards were indiscriminate with their use of force.

Several sources interviewed in McConal's book described times when guards would gun down prisoners just to avoid boredom. It was considered sport.

Somehow, throughout all the depravity and corruption, Kennedy managed to survive. For 10 years, in three prison units, he took his photos and kept his personal record.

"Historically, these photos are significant," Willett said. "There are shots of one unit that show a picket, or guard house, in the background and we have people who have worked here for years and didn't know they even existed."

McConal's book, published by Eakin Press, is Over The Wall: The Men Behind The 1934 Death House Escape.

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Art Chapman, (817) 390-7422 achapman@star-telegram.com 


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