Bruce Jackson, Diane Christian
color, 59 min, 1979
Also available on DVD and DSL
Death Row is a film about daily life on Death Row in Texas. When the film was made in March 1979, 114 men were housed in the special death cells of Ellis prison’s rows J-21 and J-23. The men spend their time waiting for the State to kill them or fighting as hard as they can to prevent that death from happening. Their hardest job is staying sane.
There is less to do on Death Row than any other kind of prison. Except for four hours a week, the men are constantly locked in small one-man cells. Few outsiders visit the Row, and those who do never stay very long. The Row is the least known of all our prisons. The film is about how men get by on the Row, how they fill the years between fixing of a death sentence by a judge and ultimate resolution in freedom, commutation or death by lethal injection. Some of the condemned men discuss their relationships with their families and attorneys; they describe how they keep from going crazy; they talk about the waiting.
The film depicts the few physical actions that barely break the monotony of life on the Row: food service with trays slid under cell doors, haircuts, domino games in the small day room, chess games on boards suspended between two cells by strips of cloth, manufacture of picture frames from cigarette pack and tobacco wrappers, reading lawbooks, watching television… Other comments on the Row are offered by a medical office, a guard, and a convict porter. The filmmakers had unsupervised access to the Row. No guard or other official was in the cells when they were doing the filming and interviewing. No other documentary film shows this otherwise hidden territory in the American criminal justice system. It would be impossible to make such a film now.
Jackson and Christian did a companion book, also titled Death Row (Beacon, 1980), which will soon be reissued with photographs and a new introduction. The book consists primarily of longer conversations with the men who speak in the fiim. Death Row was funded by grants from the American Film Institute, the Polaroid Foundation, the Playboy Foundation and the Levi Strauss Foundation. The digital restoration was funded by University at Buffalo’s Baldy Center for Law and Society and Samuel P. Capen Chair in American Culture.