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Recollections of retired Huntsville Unit warden fill new book

willett standing in front of display at the Texas Prison Museum
Retired TDCJ warden Jim Willett now serves as director of the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. His book, simply titled WARDEN, was published in April.
Photo by David Nunnelee
It’s a 232-page book with a one-word title: WARDEN. That doesn’t unlock what’s inside until the subtitle at top of the front cover is read: TEXAS PRISON LIFE, AND DEATH, FROM THE INSIDE OUT.

Jim Willett co-wrote the book with his former college roommate Ron Rozelle after working 30 years for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the last three as senior warden of the Huntsville “Walls” Unit where he was responsible for carrying out 89 executions by lethal injection. Five of those executions are detailed in the book’s 17 chapters, as are some colorful characters Willett encountered during his career. There’s also such painful reminisces as his role in the deadly Carrasco Prison Siege at the Walls in the summer of 1974.

“It just picks out spots in the 30 years that I was there,” said Willett who started his TDCJ career as a picket officer at the Walls in 1971 and has served the past two years as director of the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville.

In fact, the book published by Bright Sky Press of Albany, Texas starts off telling of Willett’s first day in One Picket, a day that started with just 15 minutes of instruction from a fellow correctional officer. It ends by bringing readers up to date on some of the people Willett met and worked with along the way.

“I hope that when readers get through with it they can sit back and say they found it to be really interesting and that they learned something about the Texas prison system,” Willett said. “I hope they find it educational and entertaining.”

Willett said the idea for the book came from his practice of writing down his thoughts following the executions carried out under his watch at the Walls. Early on, he did it as a way of releasing tension, but said he continued the practice for historical purposes even after becoming more accustomed to executing death sentences.

“I went home one night just wired and I sat down at the computer and started typing what happened that day,” he said. “I found it to be kind of a release, to get all of that out, and I just kept doing it. The thought of publishing something never crossed my mind.”

It didn’t until New York Times reporter Sara Rimer came to Huntsville shortly before Willett’s retirement in early 2001 to chronicle the practice of capital punishment in Texas.

“I got to knowing her and liking her and I let her sit down one night and read some of the notes that I had been keeping on the executions,” Willett said. “Then she says, ‘This is great stuff, you need to publish this.’ That’s the first time it popped in my mind.”

After a publishing house expressed some interest in a book of his recollections, Willett realized that he might need an agent to sell his story. As luck would have it, he got a call just two weeks later from Rozelle, the old college roommate he hadn’t seen in more than 20 years and who was now teaching creative writing at Brazosport High School in Lake Jackson. Rozelle, already the author of three books, was interested in writing a book about the Walls Unit and referred Willett to his agent. The agent, in turn, told Willett that he might need a professional writer to polish the prose for the book he wanted to write and suggested Rozelle since the two were old friends. So they agreed to team up on the project.

But things didn’t go well at first because of disagreements between the writers and the New York City publishing firm that had bought the rights to the book. Finally, after about a year, the publishing firm, unhappy with the direction and content of the book, decided to drop it.

“When they put it on the shelf, I totally went on with my life,” Willett said. “I thought that this is just as well, it isn’t meant to be. I never worried one day about it and assumed that it might stay there for a long, lone time, maybe forever.”

But unbeknownst to Willett, Bright Sky Press, the Texas-based publishing firm, had become interested in the project and approached the former publisher for the rights. After Bright Sky finally secured the rights last summer, Willett and Rozelle set out to finish the writing four years after it began. The book was released in late April.

Willett said that while everything between the covers is factual, the book reads more like a novel thanks to Rozelle’s talent as a writer.

“The story line is all mine, but Ronnie can take a sentence and make it sound a whole lot more eloquent than I can,” Willett said. “He’s the one telling the story.”

Some of the stories in the book recount high-profile events that Willett witnessed during his long career. The Carrasco Siege and the emotionally charged execution of Gary Graham in June 2002 are two examples. Others are more obscure, like his recollections of an offender who took care of the grounds outside the former Diagnostic Unit in Huntsville for years prior to dying in prison. So well regarded was the offender, Willett writes, that more than a dozen prison employees attended his burial at the state cemetery in Huntsville.

“He was just a hardworking old man who was ornery as heck when he wanted to be,” Willett said. “I tried to capture that.”

Willett said he hopes the book is well received by readers, especially those unfamiliar with the prison system.

“I want those people out there who don’t know anything about the prison system to like it because if they don’t, there’s not much of an accomplishment there,” he said. “The prison system, and the prison itself, has always been such a mystery to people. They’re all interested in it just because it is a mystery. People don’t really know what goes on behind those walls. I think they’ll find it interesting.”

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