Polunsky Death Row Visitation
I've been getting quite a few PMs asking me about the visitation process at Polunsky for death row so I decided to make a forum post for easy reference. Even if you're visiting population I'm sure some of this can help you.
The process is not hard or soul-sucking, so the first thing you need to know is that there's no need to go in with an attitude. Smile, be happy and polite and you will be treated the same (and this goes for when interacting with the locals as well).
The first thing you need to know is that you have to be on his visitor's list.
The guys are only allowed a certain amount of visits per month, depending on their level:
- Level 1: 1 visit per week
- Level 2: 2 visits per month
- Level 3: 1 visit per month
Level 1 only is allowed special visits if the visitor qualifies. If you live 300 miles away or more from the unit, congratulations! You are eligible for a special visit - two 4-hour visits to be had on consecutive days (Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday) one time a month. If you are planning on having a special visit you have to call and schedule ahead. You can do this starting in the month before your planned visit (meaning, if you're planning on visiting March 16th, you can call to schedule starting on February 1st). To schedule, call (936) 967-8082 and ask to speak to the death row warden's secretary. Tell her you're calling to schedule special visits. She'll ask you for his TDCJ number, your name, and when you want to visit. You have to call back the next day to make sure they've been approved.
Visitation times are from 8am - 5pm, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. On Wednesday it's from 8am - noon. Do not do a special visit on a Wednesday. That's "media day," so they clear out the room at 12:00 and you might not get your full 4 hours. (If doing a special visit, I highly recommend getting checked in 5 hours before you have to leave. That leaves 4 hours for your visit and 1 hour wait time.)
Death row is also able to have visits on Saturday night. There are two shifts: 5:30pm - 7:30 and 8:00pm - 10:00. (You can't do a special visit on a Saturday). If you want to do a Saturday visit, you have to call and reserve your spot the week of the visit - same number and process as above, just let her know you want to reserve a Saturday visit. You won't have to call back to see if it's been approved, but you will be asked for a phone number in case they need to call you (usually to see if you'd be willing to swap places with someone else or visit during another session - rarely happens). The second shift is always the most quiet. I've done one 5:30 visit and will never do it again because it's way too crowded and noisy.
If you're doing regular visits during the week you don't have to call and schedule. All you have to do is show up. However, you might want to call the day before (or even the morning of) to make sure he's able to get them if you're coming from a long way. I've seen people denied visits because he was dropped down a level and because of serious miscommunication (he already had a visit that week/month).
Tip: The first week and last week of the month is usually the most busy, so if you can visit during the middle of the month, do it.
Tip: Don't count on being able to visit during the last week of one month and then again the next week if it falls during the next month. Sometimes they approve it, sometimes they don't. I've learned that it depends on where you're from. Meaning, if you're not American chances are they won't approve it. I know that's biased, but that's just how they work. Blame visitors from the past for ruining it for the good eggs.
Tip: If you want more visitation time, plan your special visits for a Monday and Tuesday and book a Saturday visit for the week before. Easy way to get three visits in one trip.
Arrival, Lodging and Navigation:
If you fly in, I highly recommend flying into Bush Intercontinental in Houston as opposed to Hobby Airport so you don't have to drive in the annoying Houston traffic. When leaving the car rental place (I suggest using Enterprise to rent your car because they don't put a total plus 30% hold on your card), follow the signs to get on Hwy 59 North. Once you get on Will Clayton Parkway, stay to your left (you'll make a left turn onto 59). Once you get on 59, stay on your left or you'll end up smack in the middle of Humble and it's a pain in the butt to get back onto 59 (it happened to me in the rain one time - not fun). You'll stay on 59 all the way to Livingston. Now - when you get to Livingston, don't take the first Livingston exit. You'll want to take the one marked "Livingston/Huntsville or Lake Livingston" to get on Hwy 190. (It's about a 45 minute to an hour drive from the airport, depending on how fast you drive.) There are two hotels on that side of the road (I know one is a La Quinta). If you're staying at the Best Western or Super 8, you'll need to do a bit of a u-turn to get on the other side. Stay going straight and once you get on 190, stay to your left and turn by that light. If you're staying at the Super 8 the entrance is by those little stores - one looks like an antique shop or something.
Tip: I recommend staying in Huntsville (or maybe even the Humble area) if you'll be staying for an extended period of time and money is an issue for you. Not only that, but there's so much more to do in Huntsville than in Livingston - unless you enjoy Wal Mart, Dollar Tree, clothes shopping at Cato and things like that. There's a Motel 6 in Huntsville that'll run you about $30 a night. If time is an issue (meaning, you don't want to drive 45 minutes to an hour to get to and from Polunsky), fork out the extra $20-40 a night and stay in Livingston. I like to stay at the Best Western - the rooms are nice. If I want a cheap fix, the Super 8 does the job, but it's not nearly as nice or quiet. (The two times I stayed there were noisy thanks to my fellow guests!)
Tip: If you're using Orbitz to search for hotels and use a Mac computer, do not count on the first one listed as being the cheapest. Those rats are sneaky!
The directions to the prison are very, very easy. If you're staying in Livingston, get on 190 and go toward Huntsville (turn left). If you're staying in Huntsville, get on 190 and go toward Livingston. I give directions better using landmarks, so…
Coming from Huntsville: Jump on US 190 and drive it all the way to Livingston. When you cross the lake (Lake Livingston), you're almost there. There is a traffic light where you need to turn (on FM 350), so you can't miss it. There's a sign alerting you to the Polunsky Unit before the light.
Coming from Livingston: Jump on US 190 and turn left. You'll pass the Wal Mart on your right, then there's another little shopping area with a Cato, Dollar Tree and things like that right by the Wal Mart. Get to the left and stay on the left. Once you pass that, you need to turn left on FM 350 at the traffic light. There's a sign alerting you to the Polunsky Unit before the light, but if you're on the side of the road to see that you'll miss the turn.
If my directions confuse you, please use a map.
You won't drive down FM 350 for very long. When you see the big red and white water tower, slow down. The entrance to the prison is on the right.
At the prison:
When you drive in, you'll have to turn right (can't go straight - it's closed off) and stop by the guard shack and check in there. The guard will need to see your ID and will ask who you're there to visit. Then you'll have to pop the hood and the trunk and step out of the car so he can do his little search (sometimes they'll make you open the hood - sometimes if you act like a girl they'll do it for you). After getting the all clear, you go park your car.
The next step is always the most fun! After parking, you'll gather your items and walk into that little building you'll see in front of you. The last time I was there I saw a sign on the door that directed visitors to stand outside until they were called in. This is only for population visits and chances are it won't even be there anymore. You'll go in, take a yellow bucket/basket thing from the left, take off your shoes and jewelry (and belt if you're wearing one), empty your pockets, then wait to go through the metal detector. You'll have to turn your pockets inside-out, get a pat down (maybe even the wand passed over you - I do all the time), which now includes them patting down the soles of your feet (thank you, new warden man) and all is well. It's not unnerving or super violating. You then go to the window, check in, get your blue paper and proceed on through the doors when they open them.
You'll walk down the sidewalk and into the next building (admin building). (Sightseeing: to your right is population; to the left is death row and ad seg.) When you walk in, turn left (can't really go anywhere else, unless you want to go meet the warden - his office is straight ahead), and wait for the nice person in the control room to open the doors for you. (If they don't see you standing there, a polite tap on the window will catch their attention.) Walk in, check in with the CO and proceed to go where he or she tells you to go. Simple!
If you're visiting on a Saturday, 9 times out of 10 he will be out there waiting for you. If you have to wait you'll only have to wait a few minutes. (Last time I was there it seemed like they had a new process where the guard at the gate radioed in to the visitation people that xxx's visitor was there and it sped up the entire process. He was actually waiting for me for about 30 minutes and I got to go back and start my visit 15 minutes early.) During the week you'll most certainly have to wait, sometimes for up to an hour. You're free to get items from the vending machine and chat (quietly) with other visitors that are waiting. Do not - please! - talk to any of the guys that may be sitting out waiting to be brought back. They'll kick you out. They don't mind you waving, just don't pick up that phone to talk to them. If they are visiting with someone else and you want to say hello (if you know the guy) ask the CO if it's okay. Depending on who it is they might let you. Also, some people will tell you to get there 30 minutes earlier than the start of your Saturday visit time. I have never found this necessary. I have also come to find out that there's no need to stress if you're 5 minutes late getting there - they will let you have your full 2 hours.
Rules and Regulations:
What can you bring in? $25 in quarters or dollar coins (no paper money at all), car keys and your ID in a clear plastic bag. (I like the dollar coins because that's less to carry around.) I've also brought in hair ties and hair clips with no problem. If you don't have any change you have two options: either hope that the change machines in the reception building are working or stop at the bank on the corner of US 190 and FM 350 (I think it's the First National Bank of Livingston - they're open from 8am - noon on Saturdays, open at 9am on weekdays).
Tip: If your ID doesn't have the same address as the one that is listed on his visitor's list, call the warden's office. This happened to me! They made a note of it in the computer and I was told to bring a copy of a utility bill to show them that I live at the address they have on file. I only had to do this once and they haven't asked me for it again. (I do always keep a copy in the car, though, just in case they surprise me.)
Dress code - no white, no see-through clothing, no tank tops or halter tops, no busting cleavage, no short skirts or shorts, no hats, no toes, no "propaganda" clothing (and no Mickey Mouse!). Play it safe - you can't go wrong with pants or a long skirt. Bring an extra change of clothes just in case. You can bring a jacket or sweater (even in the summer it can get pretty chilly in there).
They'll drag the camera out during the first week of the month and usually the entire month of December. Sometimes they'll have it out for a whole month sporadically during the year if they're doing some sort of fund raiser. Pictures cost $3 each and you have to pay out of you $25 stash.
Other things that may be of use:
If you like fast food, Livingston is the place to be. There's a McDonald's and Taco Bell on 190 going towards Huntsville. Going the other way, there's a Whataburger, Burger King, Sonic and Jack in the Box (that one is a little further down the road in the "downtown" area). There's a seafood place, Chinese buffet and an Italian place that I know of (can't remember their names) as well. On 190 in Onalaska (towards Huntsville) there's a BBQ place you must try - Miss Jean's - if BBQ is your thing.
There's a CVS on 190 going towards "downtown" - the other direction from Huntsville. It's a good place to buy your essentials if you forget anything or don't want to pack it in your suitcase. The post office is down that way as well on the left side of the road. The public library is down that way as well (past the post office) in case you're in need of emergency internet access.
The weather can be insane at times so be prepared. The summers are hot, the winters can be brutally cold. On the other hand, the winters can also be hot. As we say down south, if you don't like the weather, wait a few minutes and it'll change. Check the weather before you pack so you'll know what to expect.
If I can think of anything else to add I'll do so. And if you have any questions, ask!
The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion. -Albert Camus