XI: DJC Southern Trip 2017 – Part 2: Dallas, Gatesville, Huntsville

Free bird at Wynne Unit

NOTE: This Blog is part two of three in a series by Fury Young about his DJC LP Southern Trip 2017. Thanks to our Generosity donors for making the trip possible.

We last left off [Blog X] in Dallas TX at the International Prisoner’s Family Conference 2017. The conference ended on a Friday, and the following day I had the honor of meeting and recording with Johnnie Lindsey. The way I came to meet Johnnie is memorable in itself. Days prior to leaving for the south, a friend of mine offered me a spare ticket to a film called “True Conviction,” which was premiering that night at the Tribeca Film Festival here in New York. I looked up the film and immediately took up the invitation. Filmed in Dallas, “True Conviction” follows the righteous work of three exonerated Texas men: Christopher Scott, Stephen Phillips, and… Johnnie Lindsey.

True Conviction
Poster for “True Conviction”

Scott, Phillips, and Lindsey, who collectively spent over 60 years in prison for crimes they did not commit, now work on cases of other Texas prisoners who they believe are innocent; they are essentially a pro bono investigative agency. The film was outstanding (it’s not released yet but deserves to be shown far and wide: trueconvictionfilm.com), and the scene of Johnnie at home on the piano drew butterflies. I knew I had to get in touch with him — I’d be in Dallas days later. As the end credits made their final crawl and the lights came on, director Jamie Meltzer came center stage for a Q & A. “Good,” I thought, “I’ll make sure to get Johnnie’s info from the filmmaker.” But instead of a solo presentation, he calls for Johnnie, Stephen, and Chris to take the stage, and there to my surprise was Johnnie Lindsey. It was a fateful moment, and I approached Johnnie after the screening to tell him I’d be in Dallas in a few days and would love to meet him and perhaps record some music. We exchanged information. I got a good vibe.

Days later, there I was in his home by that same piano. Johnnie is a graceful man who radiates positive energy, the kind of person you instantly like. His story is tragic. He spent 26 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. He had no relation to the victim, he was nowhere near the scene of the crime when it occurred, he had nothing to do with it. I’ll avoid the details, but the bottom line is Jim Crow justice was heavily at play. Johnnie was sentenced to life. After 26 years, he was freed based on DNA evidence, and eventually exonerated.

Johnnie at keys
Johnnie at the keys

Johnnie and I listened to the Die Jim Crow EP all the way through, which inspired him to write something on the piano then and there. The song became “Sentences,” which will likely come after “Tired & Weary” on the LP. The piece is an instrumental interlude, featuring call-ins from prison, that takes the DJC protagonist from the courtroom (a la “Tired & Weary”) to being sentenced to their prison term. Look out for it on the LP.

Johnnie Lindsey Q&A

Johnnie Lindsey

The following day, Sunday, I visited Phillip Yow at Hughes Unit, a maximum security state prison in Gatesville, TX. I’d been writing to Phillip, a singer and guitar player, for about a year, and was excited to meet him. We discussed the prospect of recording at Hughes and what steps would be necessary. I explained that I’d met a woman at the International Prisoner’s Family Conference who was friends with the head of TDCJ [Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice] Volunteer Services, Clint Morris, so I was going to hit Huntsville (where TDCJ headquarters is located) on the way down to NOLA and try to land a meeting with Mr. Morris. The visit with Phillip was memorable and deep, and I promised to stay in touch whether or not Die Jim Crow was approved for recording. Being that it was a non-contact visit, we were barred from getting a photo together. Here’s one of Phillip from a few years ago.

Phillip Yow
Phillip

That Monday I rolled the dice and drove down to Huntsville TX, thinking if I didn’t get a meeting with Clint Morris I could at least check out the Texas Prison Museum on the way down to New Orleans. Just as I entered the museum, I got a call back from Mr. Morris. I explained to him that I was only in town for a day and wanted to pitch a particular project. We set up an impromptu meeting right away. Clint is a solid guy who was keen on the project and happened to know Mark Springer (one of the main songwriters on the EP) from his days in the Ohio DOC. “I’ll tell you, I’m not the guy who’s gonna get this approved.” He set up a meeting with the Public Information Officer of TDCJ for the following day. He also booked me a room at Hospitality House (more later). Clint, if you’re reading this, thank you for all your help.

I left Mr. Morris and went straight back to the TX Prison Museum.

Uniforms

TDCJ Directors
The past commissioners of TDCJ, all white men

Prisonopoly
Prisonopoly [maker uncredited]
Soap chess board
A chess board made of soap [maker uncredited]

Solitary ConfineMINTS
Solitary ConfineMINTS at the gift shop

Huntsville TX is a bizarre place. It’s got five prisons right in town, and a few not too far from the small city. Since it’s headquarters to TDCJ, it’s filled with prisoners, officers, staff, and other employees. The main prison, called Huntsville (AKA The Walls), sits a block behind the TDCJ HQ, which is smack in the middle of a busy street. On the parallel side of that street was the best Mexican restaurant I’ve ever been to, called Lindo Mexico (if you’re ever in Huntsville).

Huntsville
Huntsville (AKA The Walls), as seen from the street

A few blocks from this scene you’ll find the Hospitality House, which houses family members visiting loved ones in any of Huntsville’s several prisons, many of whom come for executions. The building was built in 24 hours by 270 volunteers, and it ain’t no small place. Hospitality House has Texas-themed rooms with beds built by prisoners, free food for their guests, a garden with an awesome arts and crafts shed for the kids, and even a stash of free toys for families during the holiday times. It was truly an amazing place.

Debra and Joe McCammon
Debra & Joe McCammon. Debra is the Executive Director of Hospital House.
Hosp. House
Arts & crafts shed at Hospitality House (front wall made of CDs, side wall wine corks)
HH room
A Texas-themed room

Room 6

After giving me a full tour of the House, Joe McCammon (husband of the House’s Director Debra McCammon) and I drove to Captain Joe Byrd cemetery, a potter’s field for prisoners (where those not claimed by their families are buried). There we found two empty graves for a burial scheduled that Thursday. All graves and cemetery maintenance is done by prisoners of TDCJ.

Graves

Capt. Joe Byrd Cemetery

Prisoner's grave

At 9:30am the next morning, I met with Jason Clark, PIO of TDCJ. The meeting was brief and cordial, and I left Mr. Clark with a copy of the EP Book and a proposal to record Phillip Yow and his band at Hughes Unit. A week later, the proposal was denied via email. The reasons were “legal and security.” I won’t go into details here, but I will thank Mr. Clark for taking the time to meet with me. I intend to submit a proposal down the line as the project grows. Phillip’s voice and guitar need to be heard.

Next up, final installment. New Orleans & Malcolm Morris. Birmingham & Tameca Cole. Joelton (Tennessee) & Andy Dixon. New Jerz & Maxwell Melvins.

Prisoners working the grounds
Prisoners working the grounds
Wynne Unit
Wynne Unit, as seen from highway
TDCJ Horse
A state property horse

Free bird at Wynne Unit