After 32 Years, Buffalo Authors Revisit the Tragic World of Death Row

Death penalty lawyer Billy Sothern: "Nothing like this book exists or could ever exist again"

Release Date: March 28, 2012


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Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian are authors of an important new book about inmates living on death row, "In This Timeless Time: Living and Dying on Death Row in America."

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 Studies.

"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 The book includes a series of 113, mostly unpublished, photographs of the Ellis Unit and its prisoners taken during the authors' fieldwork for "Death Row."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 decades.

For additional information on the book and its authors: Duke Center for Documentary Studies:; Publishers Weekly online:

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