By Ryan Welch
If you are new to Huntsville or to Sam Houston State University, it won’t be long before you hear a long blast of what sounds like a factory horn or a ship’s fog horn. That sound is not coming from a factory, train, or ship, instead it is coming from a prison located in the center of Huntsville.
The prison is officially the Huntsville Unit, but because of the tall red brick walls topped with razor wire around the prison, it is known and called the “Walls Unit.” Every few hours one short blast is heard, and 30 minutes later it is followed by a longer fog horn like blast. The short blast signals the beginning of a head count of all prisoners, and the longer blast signals that all prisoners have been accounted for.
it won’t take long to become accustomed to the sound of the horn like you become accustomed to a grandfather clock chiming the hours or your own heartbeat. In a way the rhythmic blasts of the Walls Unit horn is a sort of heartbeat for the city of Huntsville.
The Walls Unit is the oldest state prison in Texas opening in 1849. The Texas Department of Corrections has been headquartered in Huntsville since 1848 and serves as the administrative headquarters of the Texas Prison System. The prison in Huntsville was the "the first public work of any importance" in the state of Texas according to author Robert Perkinson. It has a maximum capacity of 1,705 male offenders. Inmates range in custody level from G-1 minimum to G-3 medium security levels.
The city of Huntsville quite literally grew around the prison. Since the construction of the Walls Unit, another six prisons have been built in the Huntsville area which house a prison population of over 13,000 inmates. Half the population of Huntsville is either in prison or is working for the prison system.
The State of Texas’s execution chamber is housed in the Walls Unit and is the most active execution chamber in the United States, with over 550 executions since 1982. Death row inmates are transported from other prisons to Huntsville Unit the afternoon of their execution.
Even though there are generally small protests and prayer vigils for executed prisoners, most people in the Huntsville area have become accustomed to this part of life, living among so many prisons. Like the bats which nightly fly out of the broken windows of the abandoned warehouse across the street of the Walls Unit, the majority residents of Huntsville go about their daily routine without reflecting on the lives of the prisoners just inside those tall red brick walls.