BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Bruce Jackson is known in some circles as the
dean of prison culture. Since the early 1960s he has been studying
the little-known lives and culture of inmates in one of America's
oldest penal institutions, the O.B. Ellis Unit, a Texas Department
of Criminal Justice prison in the Walker County, Texas.
He is a SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of
American Culture at the University at Buffalo and his work in this
and other penitentiaries has resulted in classics of prison life
and lore, including "A Thief's Primer" (1969), "In the Life"
(1972), "Wake Up Dead Man" (1972) and in 1980, "Death Row" with his
wife and collaborator Diane Christian, SUNY Distinguished Teaching
Professor in the Department of English at UB.
Now they bring us "In This Timeless Time: Living and Dying on
Death Row in America," out in April from the University of North
Carolina Press and Duke University Center of Documentary
"In This Timeless Time" further illuminates the grim world of
the Ellis Unit's death row inmates through photos and text that
explore prisoner life and stories. The authors describe the fate of
each man, whether executed, given a commuted sentence, paroled or
-- in one case -- an innocent verdict after 22 years on death row.
It also explores the status of capital punishment practice,
legislation and jurisprudence over the past four decades.
"In This Timeless Time" has been named by Publishers Weekly as
one of their top 10 social science recommendations in their 2012
spring books issue. It continues and expands upon stories addressed
in "Death Row," and includes a DVD of their 1979 documentary film
of the same name. The book includes a series of 113, mostly
unpublished, photographs of the Ellis Unit and its prisoners taken
during the authors' fieldwork for "Death Row."
Although both books feature the same subject, they take very
different approaches to the story. Jackson says, "The first book
was essentially a snapshot in time. 'In This Timeless Time' looks
back and analyzes what happened to those inmates and to the death
penalty in America since the first book was published."
In its pages, Jackson and Christian also discuss how they
completed the book, the access problems they encountered more
recently with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and their
stance on ethical issues and studies related to the death penalty,
prison reform and relevant Supreme Court decisions.
The couple describes the treatment of the prisoners as "remedial
torture." They recount dehumanizing conditions death row inmates
were -- and often are -- forced to endure, in a state proud of the
number of people it executes every year. The replacement of the
cells' glass windows with frosted glass illuminates this treatment.
It not only prevented prisoners from seeing the outside world, but
caused the development of chronic optical myopia because they could
not exercise their distance vision
Jackson's and Christian's work has been influential in many
quarters. An investigating officer in the notorious Gary Gilmore
case was pleased to witness his execution, for instance, but
changed his mind after seeing the film "Death Row." The late French
President Francois Mitterand used it to explain and justify his
abolition of the death penalty in France, and it has been praised
by many other scholars, legislators and political activists for
For additional information on the book and its authors: Duke
Center for Documentary Studies: http://cds.aas.duke.edu/books/in-this-timeless-time;
Publishers Weekly online: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-8078-3539-5.