Poughkeepsie to Polunsky

In Texas, Death Row Inmates Through the Eyes of a New York Artist

A supermax prison isn't the best place to sit for a portrait, but Peter Charlap's subjects have no other choice.

By Roxanna Asgarian April 28, 2016 Published in the May 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Death row artist ffsrha

Image: Karen Pearson

Chris Young, a death row inmate at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, is an avid chess player who can manage multiple games at once without using a board, just by calling out the moves to prisoners in neighboring cells.

Will Speer, another inmate, converted to Judaism in prison and worked tirelessly to get officials to let him wear the Star of David on a chain.

Eugene Broxton, a third inmate, became skilled in the art of origami, sending his creations to people all over the world until the mail room guards began unfolding them before they were sent out, leaving their recipients scratching their heads at flat sheets of colorful paper lined with traces of tiny folds.

“Unless you know how to do it, you can’t fold it back,” says one of those recipients, Peter Charlap, sighing. “So he stopped doing it.”

Over the past few years, Charlap has traveled to Texas to complete a series of five portraits of men on death row at the Polunsky Unit, a supermax prison that houses all of Texas’s male death row inmates—more than 250 of them, each kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day—among its population of several thousand.

An artist and fine arts professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, Charlap lives in a state that ruled the death penalty unconstitutional more than a decade ago. To him, Texas is no doubt a bit of a foreign country. But it’s one where, today, he has friends.

Charlap began the first portrait in the series, of Young, in 2010. It took months to get on the prisoner’s visitor list. Inmates are allowed two special four-hour visits per month, speaking through phones across a layer of thick glass. Security doesn’t allow cameras, or even pencils or paper, so Charlap began the sketches of Young back at his hotel room, from memory.

“The first time I went there I remember thinking, how am I going to talk to this person I don’t know for four hours?” Charlap says. But to his surprise, the time flew by. “One of the things that Chris said the first day was, ‘Ask me anything; there are no boundaries.’”

Four of the death row inmates Charlap painted were convicted of murder; the fifth was an accomplice to murder. But there’s more to these men than their crimes, the artist believes. “I thought one way I could contribute would be to show people that these guys are not what their mugshots look like,” Charlap says. “Because if you look them up on the internet, they look like they could kill you, you know? But they’re not like that at all.”

Charlap maintains that time has changed the inmates, all of whom come from difficult backgrounds. He doesn’t believe the state should take their lives. Painting them, Charlap says, he felt the weight of responsibility—the need to get their likenesses right. These portraits took more time than any other works he’s painted. “I’d never done anything where that kind of physical presence of the person was that important,” he says. “But in this it was very important. It had to feel like, ‘There’s Chris’ or ‘There’s Will.’”

The paintings, set against colorful backgrounds, showcase the inmates’ personalities. Young is playing chess. Speer wears his Star of David necklace. Broxton folds his origami.

Charlap depicted another inmate, Robert Garza, displaying a sleeve of tattoos he inked himself. Garza was executed in 2013, something that’s still hard for Charlap to think about. “Robert was a really interesting guy, very smart,” he says. “Every once in a while I’ll think about Robert and realize he’s dead. I’ll see a photograph or the painting or something like that, and it’s just a shame, a terrible shame.”

Partly because of the project’s emotional toll, the artist says he’s finished with the series. But Charlap continues to visit the other four inmates in Livingston at least once a year, paying for the trips himself. He sends them care packages quarterly, including books and magazines. He keeps in touch with Broxton’s wife, who lives in Paris, and makes time for lunch with Young’s cousin when he’s in town.

“I consider these guys my friends,” he says. “I say, ‘I’m going to go visit my friends in Texas.’”

To see more of this story, tune into Newsfix on CW39, May 17 and 22.

Show Comments