HUNTSVILLE — During a recent vigil at the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery in this East Texas city, about 40 members and friends of the Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy laid flowers at tombstones and remembered the more than 3,000 prisoners buried there.
“We often depersonalize people who are involved in the system and label them as prisoners, convicts or offenders, forgetting all the other parts of who they are,” said Cindy Eigler, a public policy specialist for Texas Interfaith, which works to provide theologically based policy analysis. “But they are individuals as well, with stories.”
Criminal justice experts say that compared with other states, Texas fares well in treating prisoner burials with dignity.
“While the Texas prison system is often criticized, I believe they should be recognized for keeping the cemetery open to the public and away from the prison,” said Franklin Wilson, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Indiana State University who is writing a book on the history of the cemetery.
“In some cases, cemeteries may be behind the prison walls, right next to the prison, or maybe in a segregated section of a regular cemetery,” Wilson said. “The Joe Byrd Cemetery provides a sense of normalcy and privacy for those visiting loved ones."
The Huntsville cemetery, which is more than 160 years old, serves as the final resting place for all state prisoners whose families do not claim their bodies or cannot afford burial services.
Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which is based in Huntsville, said the system buries about 100 prisoners per year and tries hard to honor them in death.
He said all prisoners receive a religious service led by the Huntsville Unit chaplain, with Huntsville Unit prisoners servings as pallbearers.
“We carry out the funerals and try to give them as much dignity as possible,” Clark said. “It’s important because they are still people.” He added that the cemetery is well kept by prisoners in the Huntsville Unit, who do regular maintenance on it under prison security supervision.
Wilson, however, said there have been some issues with the cemetery in the past. Some of the tombstones have no engraving, and as recently as the 1990s, there were times when only prisoner numbers or sparse information was used on tombstones. But he said that such issues should not detract from the positive work the criminal justice department is doing with the burials.
During the recent vigil, Marlene Parker cried as she laid a flower at the grave of Timothy Stroud, who was a friend of her son.
Parker said while her tears were from sadness over Stroud’s July death, they were also over frustration from seeing his name spelled wrong on his tombstone.
“I think it’s sad that some of the tombstones don’t even have a name or anything,” she said. “It’d be good to have the birth date and the death date.”
Currently, gravestones have the names of prisoners, their date of death and prisoner number, but no date of birth.
Clark said that Stroud’s stone would be corrected and that mistakes at the cemetery are now rare.
“People should remember we are all human and we all have something in common with those buried here,” Wilson said. “Each of these people, no matter how horrendous the crime, was someone’s daughter, son, grandchild, mother, father, etc. So it’s nice that TDCJ keeps the cemetery” open for families.