Serving a prison sentence is difficult in and of itself. The deplorable living conditions, the separation from loved ones, the brutality—you know about all of this.
But do you know what it’s like to serve your time at a prison where executions are occurring? That was my reality when I was incarcerated at the Huntsville Unit, where the state of Texas housed the busiest death chamber in the country.
One particular morning, I rolled out of my bunk to images of Robert James Campbell flashing across my T.V. screen. Campbell was the next person scheduled to be executed there, by way of some unknown prison worker shooting poison into his veins—in a room located a short walk from my cell.
Suddenly, I became convinced that a foul odor had begun to seep into my living space. The electric chair had been replaced by lethal injection decades ago, but I was almost certain the smell was that of burnt flesh. I looked at my clock, and it was only 7:15 a.m.
I stepped out of bed to wash my face, while thoughts ran madly through my head. How could these people kill a perfectly healthy man? What the fuck are they thinking? Murder is murder is murder.
Then I looked out my door and saw two prisoners from the maintenance department welding a new table down in the dayroom. There were three others standing close to them drinking coffee. All appeared entirely insensitive to the fact that Texas was planning to execute Campbell later that day.
Relieved the odor was melting metal, not burnt flesh, I tried to think about something other than this man’s pending demise.
But the past three nights, I’d endured nightmares of being snatched from my cell by a goon squad and unceremoniously strapped to the death gurney. After taking hours to locate a suitable vein, a guard had decided to insert an intravenous line directly into my groin. And the warden, denying me an opportunity to give a final statement, never explained why I was suddenly being executed.
In the dreams, I saw images of my mother, wife, sisters and childhood friends sobbing against the windows of the viewing room. With a sadistic grin, the warden looked at them and then to my executioner and yelled, “Kill him, kill him!”
I woke up each time in a sweat.
Being incarcerated at the prison that carried out the death penalty had clearly penetrated my soul. It was as though a small part me died with each execution, and, unwilling to lose any more of my being than I had already, I was determined to make this execution different.
I walked outside to the yard to get some fresh air and gather my thoughts. I watched as my fellow inmates played handball and basketball, apparently without the same burden.
Before long, my focus drifted to every van that entered the prison. I wondered which one carried Campbell, and what I could do to obstruct its path. Almost deliriously, I stared up at the wicked officer in the guard tower and wondered if he would be the one to inject the poison into the veins of the condemned. If I could somehow stop him from making it to the death chamber…
My thoughts were interrupted by the screams of a different guard: “Clear the yard, clear the yard!” he shouted with authority. The time had come, I thought: Campbell had arrived, and the prison officials were going to great lengths to ensure that their planned murder would be uninterrupted.
The media had begun to gather on the outside of the compound, and on my way back to my cellblock, I could hear the chants of an abolitionists’ group: “No Justice, No Peace!”
I began to think about Campbell’s mental state. What does a man think while someone is escorting him to the very room that would consume his soul? What does he he think of the prisoners who cleaned out that room in preparation for his untimely death? What does he think about the one who prepared his last meal?
Would he eat from the very hands that would return a short time later and strap him to the gurney to meet death? Would he resist like Gary Graham had, and be beaten before being killed?
Or would the courts intervene at the last moment? Campbell's IQ had been tested at 68, 69 and 71, and the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that scores below “approximately 70” indicated intellectual disability. Was Campbell's attorney questioning the fact that Texas had still scheduled a man who was “intellectually disabled” for lethal injection?
It was almost late afternoon, and the execution was hanging over the prison like a dark cloud on a dark day. Or at least it was hanging over me, personally.
I asked my neighbor if he’d heard the name Robert Campbell before, and he said with confidence that it was the owner of the Houston football team. I shook my head in disgust. I wanted to yell, but didn’t, that Robert Campbell would be the guy in the room next door.
But a sudden burst of roaring cheers suddenly came from the T.V. room. The news that Campbell had received a stay of execution must have flashed across the T.V., I thought to myself! I rushed to the common area—only to see that a Jerry Springer-type show was on, and it was the origin of all of the excitement.
Again, I wanted to shout, “There’s a guy about to be murdered! In the room next door!”
I returned to my cell to moan alone. Despite the crime that Campbell had committed, he didn’t deserve to die like this, and despite the crime I’d committed, I didn’t deserve to have a part of me die with this other man.
Two prisoners stood a few feet from me arguing about what the prison was serving for dinner. Campbell’s time was expiring fast. If the state of Texas kept up its tradition, he would be strapped to the gurney once the clock struck six, and the poison would begin flowing shortly after that.
I thought of lynchings. I thought of the old saying, “Old habits are hard to break.”
I was paralyzed and petrified. Campbell was soon to be killed, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop it.
Now I was caught in a terrible quandary. One part of me demanded life for Campbell, while another wanted death for the people about to carry out this senseless act. I’d become what I despised, in just a day.
Then, a roar invaded the silence of my cell again. This time it came from outside the compound—and this time it was real! A victory roar from the abolitionists could not be mistaken for the cheers from a Jerry Springer audience. I turned on my radio and there it was: “Death Row inmate Robert Campbell has just received a stay of execution from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court stayed the execution to determine if his intellectual disabilities make him ineligible…”
Hooray! The execution was stopped. Campbell would live to see another day. He would return back to his prison and speak to his friends there, and all the people he’d thought he would never see again. Perhaps this would assure them that not everyone who leaves death row dies. Perhaps I’ll sleep nightmare-free tonight.
But in the words of Leo Tolstoy, “All this is carefully arranged and planned by learned and enlightened people.”
In 2017, Robert James Campbell's death sentence was reduced to life with the possibility of parole after a U.S. Supreme Court decision declared capital punishment for the intellectually disabled unconstitutional.
Jeremy Busby, 41, is incarcerated at the Stiles Unit prison in Beaumont, Texas, where he is serving a 75-year sentence for murder.