Steve Earle’s “Ellis Unit One”

Last Wednesday the Supreme Court halted the execution of three death row inmates in Oklahoma until their challenge to the state’s method of execution can be reviewed. The State of Oklahoma had taken an unusual step of requesting the Supreme Court to halt the pending executions because under its Constitution the Governor cannot delay them for more than sixty days, as reported in the Wall Street Journal here.

Thirty-four states and the Federal Government use lethal injection for prisoners sentenced to death, although many states rarely execute prisoners. One of the three drugs used for most lethal injections, sodium thiopental, was discontinued by domestic drug company Hospira in 2011. Companies in the European Union will not provide the drug if it is used for lethal injection, so several states have experimented with different combinations of drugs to carry out the procedure.

As a result, the State of Oklahoma executed convicted murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett on April 29th last year with an untested combination of drugs. The 43-minute procedure was described by his attorneys as “torture.” It was the second US execution last year using midazolam as a sedative which resulted in the prisoner speaking, gasping, and attempting to rise from the gurney. The Supreme Court will hear arguments that the new drug cocktail used to execute prisoners violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The spiritual advisor for one of the three Oklahoma inmates, Richard Glossip, is Sister Helen Prejean, a long-time advocate for the abolition of captial punishment. In 1995, she wrote a book about her experience advising another death row inmate which was made into a feature film. Glossip was twice convicted of a contract killing.

Opinion polls consistently put Prejean and persons such as ourselves in the minority when it comes to capital punishment. The United States is also in the minority, finding ourselves in the company of such enlightened bastions of freedom as China, Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

dead man walking

We wouldn’t really recommend Dead Man Walking, the film based on Prejean’s book, which describes her experiences meeting the families of an inmate and the victim of his crime. We’re much more interested in music than movies, of course. The soundtrack for Dead Man Walking was an interesting compilation album. Unlike the public defense of the poor, no expense was spared: the disc included new, original songs by Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits and Patti Smith. It was a top-selling soundtrack, and Springsteen’s song was nominated for an Academy Award.

We’re fans but also cynical folks, and it’s hard to see how his song wasn’t nominated simply for having been by the Boss. His hasty treatment of the heavy subject is really no better than the rest of the songs from his mid-90s malaise. Likewise we love Tom Waits, but the two songs he wrote for the soundtrack fell short of what else he was recording around the time. One, “The Fall of Troy,” was later recorded by Kurt Wagner (of Lambchop) backed by the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and is our all-time favorite cover of a Tom Waits song, and the other has a jaunty charm not removed at all from Bone Machine or the Night on Earth score.

The remarkable thing about the Dead Man Walking soundtrack was that the reason we’ve never gotten rid of our copy of this best-seller is a song by then-unknown country songwriter Steve Earle, the only person on the disc to have actually done time (Johnny Cash’s aggradized one-nighters don’t count as “time”). Like Sister Helen Prejean, Earle approaches the subject with insight and sensitivity. All of those marquee names might have once been great songwriters, but it’s Earle who actually gives listeners something to think about.

Prisons are a major employer throughout the rural United States, including Walker County, Texas, which is the setting for Steve Earle’s song. While they provide a modest living in many similar counties which otherwise lack employment opportunities, the primary beneficiary of the American prison industry is major corporations. If you eat at McDonalds or Wendys, its entirely possible your burger was packed by an inmate. Your Verizon or Sprint customer service call is likely to be handled by another inmate. Elsewhere prisoners make blue jeans sold in budget department stores like KMart and JC Penny, and female inmates in South Carolina have sewed products for Victoria’s Secret.

And one of the ugliest jobs in America, the execution of prisoners, is carried about by employees like the protagonist in Steve Earle’s song, who find themselves working in prisons like the Ellis Unit because there are no other opportunities where they live. There is more than one way in which capital punishment in America is limited to the poor.

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