Looking Back on a Life as a Death House Warden

Jim Willett is the director of the Texas Prison Museum and was a warden at the Walls Unit who oversaw 89 executions by lethal injection. He sits in a replica cell within the museum.
Jim Willett is the director of the Texas Prison Museum and was a warden at the Walls Unit who oversaw 89 executions by lethal injection. He sits in a replica cell within the museum.

HUNTSVILLE — Jim Willett never hit anyone in his life, never even wanted to hurt anyone. But at the height of his career, the mild-mannered, white-haired man with reading glasses perched on the end of his nose was responsible for carrying out 89 executions.

“I think if I had my choice, growing up, I’d have been a farmer,” said the former warden of the state’s notoriously active death house.

Willett had not intended to spend the better part of his adult life working in Texas’ sprawling prison system. But the business student turned prison guard found a comfortable routine working for 30 years among his colleagues and wards in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Even now, a decade into his retirement, the soft-spoken, grandfatherly figure has a job running the Texas Prison Museum, surrounded by mementos of lives spent behind razor wire, steel bars and thick brick walls. It has been a career less frightening and less dangerous than people imagine, Willett said, and more enjoyable than he had expected.

In 1970, Willett was a student at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville when friends told him he could make good money working for the prison system. He applied and was hired.

The 21-year-old showed up for his first day of work at the towering red-brick “Walls Unit,” home of the execution chamber, got a 45-minute tour and was shown to the “picket” — the distinctive guard towers that surround prisons — where he would be working. “It was me and a pistol and a shotgun, and I was praying that no inmates tried to escape,” he said.

Eventually, the job became less intimidating. When he graduated from college, an insurance company offered him a position. But he turned it down and spent the next 13 years at the Walls, winning promotions, making friends with other guards and with inmates. He met his wife there — she worked for the Texas Commission for the Blind, which had an office inside the prison and dealt with blind inmates.

Willett was promoted to assistant warden and spent more than a decade working at other Texas prisons. Then, in 1998, prison officials asked him to take on one of the highest-profile jobs in the system: senior warden back at the Walls. He declined, knowing what it would entail. “I didn’t want to deal with the executions,” he said.

The job meant a raise, and Willett said he could not reconcile getting paid more to put men to death. When officials called again, though, he capitulated.

“Somebody was going to have to deal with those inmates,” Willett said. “And I felt like those inmates couldn’t have anybody better to deal with than me.”

He oversaw one of the busiest periods in Texas’ death chamber. During the three-year period he was warden, he gave the go-ahead for 89 executions. Willett greeted the condemned when they arrived at the Walls, talked with them about how the process would work, asked about their last statements and tried to fulfill their final requests.

Later, after the inmates were strapped to the gurney and the needles were inserted, Willett stood by, awaiting a prearranged cue that they had finished their last statement. Then, he would give the signal to start the flow of lethal drugs. “It got easier, but it never got to a point I’d call easy,” he said.

After each one, Willett typed up all that had happened that day. “It turned out to be kind of a release,” he said. But he said he did not think about whether Texas should have the death penalty. “If the people of Texas want to have it,” he said, “I’m fine with it.”

Terry Green, now a county jail administrator in Central Texas, was a captain in the Department of Criminal Justice and worked on the execution team. He described Willett as a compassionate man who was trusted by officers and inmates. If the executions strained his friend, it never showed. “He’s just strong in his faith,” Green said. “That’s the key.”

When he reached retirement age in 2001, Willett said, he figured he could make just as much money from his pension as he could working, and with far less stress.

A few months later, he started working part time at what was then a tiny prison museum space near Huntsville’s courthouse. Less than two years later, he was in charge of an expanded facility on the outskirts of town. Just about every day, a former co-worker stops by, and former inmates still call to check in.

"I don't have to worry about people stabbing each other. I certainly don't have to worry about escapes," he said. "It's just the most neat place in the world to be."

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