Scholar Spotlight | What I learned visiting prisons in the Deep South

Nine days, seven states, eight hotels. Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar Grace Caputo, class of 2017, traveled with the Embrey Human Rights Program to tour death row prisons across the Deep South in August. She now has an internship with the Meadows Foundation Health Policy Institute. Caputo is majoring in political science and human rights, and minoring in law and legal reasoning; she will graduate from SMU in December. The Tower Center sat down to talk with her about the tour and internship.

HCM Tower Scholar poses with John Thompson, a member of Witness to Innocence. Thompson served 18 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, 14 of which were on death row, before he was exonerated. Thompson died of a heart attack earlier this month.

Tell us about your experience on the death row tour.

It was pretty exhausting because every night we had to move. What was cool though, is that we got to work with Witness to Innocence, an organization of death row exonerees. In each state, even if we didn’t get to see the prison facilities, we talked to someone who was on death row in that state. We also went to different law firms that work on prison conditions and with inmates on death row who can’t afford counsel. It was a really eye-opening experience. I had never been in a prison before; like most people I had no reason to be going to a prison.

What was it like to be in a prison?

It was interesting to see how the prisoners lived — most of the prisons are not air-conditioned, which was really crazy. I was sweating; I couldn’t imagine being in that environment for an extended period of time. It opened my eyes to a lot of the corruption that goes on in the trials, and how the prison system is more for profit than rehabilitation, which I didn’t know much about. A lot of the Witness to Innocence people had similar stories. They either had really bad public defenders or they had prosecutors that withheld evidence or did other crazy things. I didn’t know it was that bad.

What was it like to talk to people who were once on death row?

Some of them have come back from it and are really happy with what they are doing; they’ve moved on. Others, you can see it’s taken a toll on them. It was sad to see. If you take away years of someone’s life, and they live in those conditions for something they didn’t do, it’s sad to see how they come out. Some are depressed, or smoking all the time; one man had trouble walking and used a cane. They were young when it happened — they lost their young adult years, which was sad to see.

Why did you decide to have this experience?

Since coming to SMU I have changed my view on the death penalty; now I’m really against it. Before college, I thought I could understand why in some cases it might be an acceptable punishment. The human rights program opened my eyes, moral arguments aside, to the inconsistencies and biases in the system, and to how inhumane it is.
I thought the trip would be interesting. I think prisons are interesting in general because they’re full of the people no one thinks about. People think, “Who cares? They committed this crime so it doesn’t matter how they’re treated.” I’m hoping to at least do pro bono work with this issue after law school so I wanted to see it for myself.

The driving entrance to Louisiana State Penitentiary.

What struck you the most while you were on the tour?

When I went to Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary) it was like modern-day slavery. They make the inmates work for the first three years in the fields. Unlike other prisons we visited, at Angola I noticed right away that most of the prisoners were African American. They were doing field work and the officers were on horses with huge guns — it looked like slavery. They work eight hours a day and are not paid the first three years.

I never thought about inmates getting paid for their work, but these prisoners are making our license plates, in Texas they make our car tags, and they make highway signs. I think it’s important they get some kind of compensation.

Tell us about your internship.

I am working at the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, and specifically I am working on the Caruth Justice Project, which works within Texas jails to improve mental health both before inmates arrive in jail and once they’re there. We are pushing to have a mental health expert on call for 9-1-1 suicide calls. Also, if the 9-1-1 call requires officers to go to the site, we want them to be accompanied by that mental health expert to ensure people are treated in the most beneficial way for their health.

The second part of the project is reducing wait times for mental health evaluations. Before defendants can stand trial, they are required to have an evaluation, so some people wait longer in jail for the evaluation than they would have been if found guilty of the crime. We want to raise grant funding for data collaboration so that records are kept and shared if people have already been evaluated.

How do you plan to use these experiences after college? Would you recommend the death row tour to others?

I want to take this knowledge with me to law school and figure out what I want to do; maybe go into this field or do pro bono work. I want to incorporate this experience into my lifestyle and career.

I would recommend this trip to other people because it is a unique experience that you wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to do. It deals with our most basic human right: the right to life. In addition, it is worthwhile to be able to see first-hand the prison system, especially because the U.S. has the one of the highest numbers of  incarcerated people in the world. Whatever side of the political spectrum you’re on its important to be as informed as possible.