Coordinating with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice
The Hospitality House during executions
Days leading up to the execution
Day of execution
last phone call of inmate
Comforting family members
Stigma against family of those on Death Row
MAURICE CHAMMAH: There we go. Okay, so we're here on July 25, 2011 at the Hospitality House in Huntsville, Texas; conducting the interview now is
Maurice Chammah and behind the camera is Kalli Henderson, and we're here today with Debra McCammon, the director of the Hospitality House. I guess if you'd like to begin, I'd like to know where
you're from and your background and what led you here.
DEBRA MCCAMMON: Here to this place? Actually I've been connected to the Hospitality House since 1989. The house itself was built in 1986, and so
it's twenty-five years old, celebrating twenty-five years this year of offering lodging and food to families. And in 1989, my husband and I came to a church locally here for him to pastor, and
so at that time our church was very proud of the fact that it helped build this house. The house was built in twenty-four hours by two hundred and seventy volunteers, who came in. I know, y'all
do some fast things—at the camp they do—but this was amazingly fast.
MCCAMMON: So they built it in twenty-four hours, and so our church—the families and men there—were very proud of the fact that they had helped
build the house and were connected to it. And so we began coming over as a pastor and wife, and I began leading teams of groups over, of children, Acteens, teenagers, young adult women coming
over and helping clean the house, bring food, school supplies, Christmas toys for the children, just throughout the years that we were there—almost eight years, we would continue to come out
several times a year, and come over.
MCCAMMON: In fact, Bob, the director at the time, would call and say, "Debra, we need paper towels, can you help us with that?" "Sure, I'll get a
group together, we'll gather them up, and bring them over." So, we just became good friends. I did it with the directors at the time, and we just became very closely related to the house at
that time. And then that continued. We left this work, left this pastorate, went on to another pastorate, and at that church I just did the same thing, continued the relationship, encouraging
our church people there to come help support the Hospitality House by bringing toys and school supplies, and taking mission trips, here and all.
MCCAMMON: In 2001, the same directors at that time, Bob and Nelda Norris, they were here sixteen and a half years, and Bob and Nelda Norris at
that time asked me if I would serve on the board of directors of the house, since I knew the ministry, had been connected to it, would I then serve on the board. So I served from 2001 until
2009, and at that time, in 2009, in May, the board was notified that the acting director at that time, who had been here six years, was going to be resigning, and would be leaving.
MCCAMMON: So we began praying about who would come in and fill it or whatever, and at the August meeting they had thirty-two resumes, and we
looked them all over, and a committee was appointed to review them and then select an appropriate director. In September, then, just a month later, I received a phone call from one of the board
members, who said, "We'd like for you to come interview."
MCCAMMON: And I said, I didn't even submit a resume. I'm not interested, and you're not going to hire me.
And he said, "Well, no, we've been praying about it. We feel like you'd be the best one for the position."
And I said, "You've got thirty-two others' resumes, and there's bound to be somebody that would be good in that." And I said, "You don't ever hire women." They'd had two directors, who had been men before, so I was the first female director then. But they asked me to come—would I please consider it. So I submitted my resume. They called me back two days later and said come for an interview in two weeks.
And when I went for the interview, then they hired me on the spot, and said, "Start in two weeks."
So it was very fast, sweeping, going from nothing and not knowing what was going on to—
CHAMMAH: Quick education.
MCCAMMON: "Yeah, an interview, yeah, now move in. Yeah, we're ready for you to go." So I moved in and began November 1, 2009 as director
here—the third director here for the house at that time. So that's kind of my background and connection to the house and how I arrived.
CHAMMAH: What was that training like when you first came on in a whirlwind?
MCCAMMON: Oh, there was no training. There was no one here. It was an empty house. In fact, my husband wasn't even able to move here at the time.
He was still teaching school in Mesquite, so I was here by myself, and had the house open. Opened up at six, six-thirty in the morning and then closed at midnight, every night, so I could go
get some sleep, because we had families come in at all different times of the day and night. And had a lot of them that would come in early, early mornings; others that were driving in from,
you know, really far off, so were arriving late.
MCCAMMON: But when I arrived, no, there was no training, and there was no handbook to pass on. It was a jump in and do it, recreate it. In fact,
we had lost a lot of the computer stuff. They had not—didn't really have it organized very easily, to be able to be used, so we actually started from scratch and recreated all the files, both
in computer and hard copy, and did everything by hand, all the office, we started over from scratch essentially, the records.
MCCAMMON: And then began remodeling the house, fixing it up, redecorating, cleaning it out: that was the biggest chore, was taking twenty-five
years of accumulation of stuff, literally, everywhere, and just reorganizing, cleaning, getting rid of, and keeping those things that were of value, were of potential historical value to the
house and to the ministry, pictures and paintings that had been done by men who had been incarcerated or executed, and things that they'd done that they donated to us—like this painting was
done by an inmate and some of his friends.
MCCAMMON: So, things that were of historical value, or that we feel like would mean a lot to the house and to the story of the house, then we were
able to keep and/or archive. And those things that were just essentially of no value or not really any use, then we, as I called it, passed on the blessing to others who maybe could use them,
and some of the thrift stores locally: there's Good Shepherd Mission, and then Burning Hope has a thrift store for a homeless shelter—for a women's shelter. So we passed on those things to them
to where they could use them, sell them, make some money to help their profit—I mean, help their ministries have some money to work from, profit to work from a little bit. So, anyway…
MCCAMMON: So, no, it was very hands-on, just get in and figure it out for yourself, how do you do it, what do you do, what do you make happen, yeah, just go with it.
CHAMMAH: And what kind of things changed do you think from the person before you to you. Were there things that were different because you were
the first woman?
MCCAMMON: There were a lot of changes.
The previous director had a very different personality and leadership style—
MCCAMMON: —very different. So things have changed drastically from what was to what is now. Some of that—that was very different—is that when the
families would come in, their attitude wasn't quite as friendly towards guests who would come, and so the guests were encouraged to go straight to their rooms and stay in their rooms. They were
not really allowed to cook and feed, or do anything themselves in the kitchen.
MCCAMMON: Whereas—we—we, pretty much—the families are in here, and hang out in here now around the tables visiting, children all over the place
playing games, and having a really good time. Same thing with the adults sitting around, visiting, interacting—there's a lot of social networking that goes on, as they make friends.
They can say, "Well, what's your husband in for?"
"Well, mine's in for this,"
"Well, I need help with this,"
"Well, how do you figure out that?" or
"Do you know who I should talk to about this, this, this?"
MCCAMMON: And so they really help one another out, and they're building their own network of friends. And so since we have so many regulars, who
come all the time, they really enjoy seeing other women there. This past weekend we only had two who were what we call regular guests—they come all the time. And the other twenty-eight,
twenty-nine people—twenty-nine, I guess—were brand new for the weekend.
MCCAMMON: And so that was really topsy-turvy. Normally we have more regulars than we have new, but we're just starting to get a lot more new
people in, coming into that. So, that is some of the ways it's different.
MCCAMMON: The house itself is very different in that pretty much everything that came in that was donated they kept here. And so on this wall,
there were seventeen different paintings that were just on that one wall—from all kinds of sizes, from the floor all the way up. And it was just very overwhelmingly chaotic. And that was true
of every wall. Every wall was filled almost floor to ceiling with paintings or drawings or prints that were just, like, from the dollar store, that because somebody gave it to them from a
garage sale, they felt like they had to hang it, you know. And so things were everywhere. There was nowhere for the children to play other than over in that corner, in front of the door there,
the little exit door, and so we created a playroom for the children to be able to play and be able to use that.
MCCAMMON: We went in, and—the rooms were very—according to the chaplains and the families—the families called them "prison white"; the chaplains
called them sterilized and institutionalized. And, so, this is really the only room—this and the hallways—are the only ones that are white now, and all the other rooms have color, so they're
blues, they're pinks, they're browns, they're khakis, they're, you know: we have about five different shades of blue. They're greens. And so all the rooms are different colors, with different
décor, and it's more of a bed and breakfast feel, in the rooms now, I think you'll see in a little bit, than what it was before.
MCCAMMON: So we really tried to make it more about the families, and about meeting their needs. We provide an office now for them. We have free
Wi-Fi in the house where they can—We have so many guests who come in from overseas, and others are traveling, that we have the computer there to where they can print out boarding passes, rental
car agreements; they can check online to see what movies or restaurants are open—rather than taking our office space, and when we're trying to help check someone in, them needing something in a
hurry—now they can go over and take care of it themselves. Also some storage, there.
MCCAMMON: We cook meals for the families now, all the time, which is also something very different. They used to do just biscuits on Sunday
morning, breakfast for them. Other than that it was cereal if they wanted to. We cook a big breakfast every morning that we have guests here. We cook big meals every Friday and Saturday night,
because that's our largest groups that we have come. We're open seven days a week. So on Fridays and Saturdays those are our largest groups, so we cook big, large meals on those nights to serve
everyone. And then if they don't want what we have, and what we fix, then they're welcome to cook something themselves or to bring in their own hamburger or whatever, to eat whatever they'd
like to. But, we have meals ready, prepared for the guests on the other nights—like last night and tonight—that are coming in—even tomorrow night. The guests that come in, they'll eat from
whatever leftovers we have from the weekend or they can bring their own food in. So I don't cook every night for one or two families. We cook only for the large groups and then usually have
enough left, that'll get us by for a couple of nights of other guests being here, so being able to do that.
MCCAMMON: So those are a few of the changes.
MCCAMMON: I do a lot more speaking engagements, a lot more traveling, raising awareness about the house, trying to raise funding: with our being a
non-profit there's constantly that need to have to raise money to be able to pay the bills and keep us going. The families, the majority of them, are not able to make, nor do we require them to
make, any kind of a donation. Some of them do, but it may be, like a $1.13. I had a little boy who scrounged up pennies and nickels and dimes out of his pocket, because he saw other
people giving us five and ten dollar bills for their families, and so he dug in his pocket, and came up with $1.13 and said, "Here, Miss, this is for my family."
MCCAMMON: Isn't that sweet? So, we have things like that, you know, anywhere to, the other day a lady saw the same thing, saw people giving us
money—it was a different weekend, but saw some of them giving us some money to help out with everything, and she gave us $2.50, and said, "That's all the money I have. Is that okay?"
MCCAMMON: And yeah, of course, you don't have to give us anything. So we always encourage them not to worry about it, if they give it.
MCCAMMON: A lot of them say, "No, this'll help other people be able to come and stay here."
MCCAMMON: So we accept it when they give it, but we don't ask or require of them to do it. So I do a lot of speaking on behalf of the house, a lot
of raising awareness, making people—raising education as far as who we are, what we do, our availability to the families that come in. And we would still like to have a lot more families coming
in than we do. We've been staying very full on the weekends for about ten weeks now, nine or ten weeks now. We're not full still on the weeknights, and I would like for us to be fuller on the
weeknights as well with the guests that come in. But a lot of them still don't know we're here or we're available.
MCCAMMON: And for many of them, I think they think we're a homeless shelter. You know, they're told about the Hospitality House, when they call in
and they have a loved one being released, the parole officers say, "There's a place your family can stay when you come in."
MCCAMMON: But I think they think of it as some kind of shelter. And because they can't look at the Internet to see pictures or to read about it,
if they don't take the time to call, then we can't disabuse them of that notion, so it's just one of those things. We continue to raise the education level and awareness, both within churches
and within the Christian community, so that they'll help give and provide for the families. All the food that we have in here, you'll see in a little bit, has been donated by different
individuals and churches who provide it for the families. We cook from it for the families, but then we allow them to take bags of groceries home with them.
MCCAMMON: So, if their kids need school supplies—we gave away, I think, what was it—nine or ten, eight school supplies, to eight different
children this past weekend. So we'll continue to do that over the next several weeks, and those were all provided and donated by different church groups as they bring those in, and we just pass
it on to the families. Same thing with Christmas toys for the toys for the families and Christmas gifts for the women. Groups donate those, bring those in. We're able to do that.
MCCAMMON: So we've changed a lot, actually between the two, but again I think it's due to the difference between the personalities and leadership
styles, and just kind of the way God's created me very different from, you know, in the past.
MCCAMMON: Some of the things that are different is that the two previous directors—the men were the directors and the wives were the freebie help,
as it were. They were here to help and assist, and did a lot of the laundry and volunteer work and doing all of that, while the husband was the director of it. And that's very different because
I'm the director, but my husband, I told them, would not be a free tag-along help. He's out working in the shop now, working in the yard, but he does it because he wants to, not because there's
an expectation of it. And he teaches school: he's a schoolteacher. So he's available during the summer, and is helping out there and working now on some projects he's got going. But there's not
an expectation of this being a two-for-one deal like there had been before, but we had that agreement before I started, so we knew that coming in.
CHAMMAH: And I wonder if you could tell me a little about just that process of learning—you said you learned very quickly how to manage
everything. How did you learn about ministering to this particular segment of—
MCCAMMON: You know I don't know that there's a really clear answer for that. It is a very different segment of society. I get where you're going
with that—because it is very true: It is a very different kind of ministry. I think the Lord has just given me a passion for ministry and for serving and helping people, helping people come to
know Him and to understand His love, His grace and forgiveness He has for them.
MCCAMMON: But because I was connected to the house for so long, I knew what the ministry was. I knew the families it affected, and while I knew
that from the aspect of being a donor, of bringing things in and donating, or being on the board, which meant I came four times a year to the house and we would make decisions regarding it, I
still did not know anything, not even one speck really of what the real level of work was, until I came on as director, and that has been one of the ways I've been trying to educate our board,
is really what all goes into this ministry. There's so much more than, as a board, they realize. There was so much more than what I realized, even though I felt like I was here quite a bit
bringing donations and popping in and out, is nothing compared to what goes on, on a day-to-day basis.
MCCAMMON: I've had people who said, "It would be nice to have a weekend job."
MCCAMMON: I said it would be great if I had a weekend job, but we actually are open seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, and we have people
who don't get here until—the other night—twelve-forty. I went to bed after one o'clock, and I had breakfast duty, so I was up at five ready to do breakfast after going to bed at one, and then
worked all day that day—cooking, cleaning, getting things ready for the guests, cooking supper again for that night. You know, so it's very, very long hours, very busy hours. We have phone
rings all day long. People pop in. We've already had several guests today pop in and bring and donate food items, dropping off different things, picking up different things. You know, so you
have your administrative end, of filling out reports and taking care of—you know, doing all that stuff for the board and for different agencies.
MCCAMMON: We don't get any state or federal funding at all. We truly are a non-profit. But, we still have—I have an association, Baptist
Association—that we answer to, who are one of our supporters. And so I have to do reports for them, and then for the Baptist Convention, I have to do reports. So there's a lot of administrative
details, taking care of insurance and audits and providing everybody with whatever they need on all those areas, which is what I've been busy doing today.
MCCAMMON: As well as trying to plan fundraising events to try to help raise the money that we need to keep going. As I said, I travel a lot, do a
lot of speaking, so there's a lot of things on that end as a part of it as well as working with volunteers. We've had volunteers here this morning doing laundry. Mondays are always laundry day.
It's a big, busy morning when you have, I don't know what we did—probably about ten loads of wash and then you take a little more, so maybe twelve to fifteen of drying, because you have to
split it into the dryers to get it to dry. We cram a lot into the washers, but to dry it you have to thin it out. So it's a lot of laundry to get done in one morning and then reset the rooms,
again, cook, just getting ready
MCCAMMON: So there's a lot that goes on all day long. We've now changed the hours. I've kind of learned, going, being here, that if everybody else
in town isn't open until nine o'clock, why am I open at six-thirty—six and six-thirty? There's no point in us opening that early, and if the guests are coming in then they'll see our hours are
nine, they'll wait, and, you know, we'll be able to check them in later.
MCCAMMON: And we also lock up at eleven. We still wait—we still ask the guests to try to be here by ten-thirty, but if they can't come in till
twelve or twelve-thirty, we still wait up for them. We just say please keep us informed, you know where you're at, and how long it's taking you. If they're driving in from Amarillo, or
Missouri, the other night, or, you know, wherever, California, Oregon, or wherever, then you just, we work with them and we're here and available for them whenever they come in.
MCCAMMON: The learning is, as I went, was more than—I feel like I've had experience in ministry before. My husband is a pastor, so I was involved
in church work all my life, and being able to plan events and do things for churches. My previous position before this, I worked as a mission's consultant for the State of Texas, and so I was
used to planning a lot of women's events, and doing a lot of leadership training, and speaking and all. So part of that was I think God prepared me ahead of time, by giving me all these
different avenues and opportunities of service, so that when I came here, I even had started up a business, and so I had to start it from scratch and doing the financials, doing the
organization, setting up the office files. I'd done all of that for an organization in Dallas—a nonprofit—as secretary, essentially, as administrative assistant, big fancy name, or
secretary—but, actually had done all of that, so when I came here, it was just like, "Oh I've done this before." And so it was, okay, we don't have that? Okay, well then we'll create it.
MCCAMMON: And I have very much of a self-starter personality, and I'm very workaholic, so coming in and doing it all is always an adventure. It's
a big challenge; which, I can't stand to be bored and I can't stand to sit still, so this is a perfect job for that, because you don't ever get to sit still and it's always something different
every day. And you never know what the day's going to bring. I have a list of things I'll hope to get accomplished, but then we never know, I never know, how much of that I'll get to on the
list, because of who might walk through the door, what the needs might be, if it's a family in need, or if it's a homeless, you know, one looking for shelter, wanting us to provide food, or if
it's a young man, like happened this morning, needing to come and do service hours, and could we please help him out.
MCCAMMON: So, not knowing who is going to come in and what the needs are, or what the phone call's going to be, that you've got to be able to
help, or direct, and do; it's just always changing. Which makes it a lot of fun for me. It would drive someone who had to be very structured crazy. If you had to have structure and boundaries,
and everything always the same—if your personality was that, it would probably burn you out very quickly because it would tax that. But because I have an adventurous spirit, I love variety, I
love change, I like things new—then this has been a huge challenge and a lot of fun to be able to work with.
MCCAMMON: I'm also very social, and that's the difference between myself and the last director, in that he really did not like being around
people. And in this position, because there's so many people who come in all the time, you really have to be comfortable in your own skin, and enjoy people. So enjoying being with them, sitting
down, talking, hanging out, visiting, playing with the children, doing the games, the puzzles, the whatever, that you need to be able to enjoy that.
MCCAMMON: And then I think it also takes someone who enjoys working with volunteers. And not everyone wants to spend the time that it takes to
train and work with volunteers. But I really could not do this job if it weren't for volunteers that I have come in.
MCCAMMON: Wanda—I think you met—showed you where the bathroom is—is a live-in volunteer. She's been living with me since October, and living here
as a volunteer assistant, and helping me out with everything.
MCCAMMON: Nina, the young lady that's here, who I guess I introduced you to earlier. Nina's a summer missionary. So she's serving here from
Stephen F. Austin University. She came as a summer missionary to serve just for the summer months. So she's been here since May, and will be serving all summer then with this, before she goes
back to go to school.
MCCAMMON: As well as some of the other woman I have who come and help do laundry. I have ladies who help bake cakes, who come and help clean. And
so if it weren't for volunteers who come in, even to the community service volunteers, while some see it as a big pain in the neck, having that many volunteers come in, we wouldn't have got
these rooms painted if it weren't volunteers.
MCCAMMON: If it hadn't been a school group coming to paint the playroom that would not have happened. So much of the construction and work that's
been done on the house, the remodeling, plumbing breaking in the middle of the night, Saturday night, and we called in a volunteer plumber, who came, got out of bed, and came and fixed the
plumbing for us. So, there just—if it weren't for volunteers you really could not do this job. If it weren't for everybody working together. And yeah, sometimes it takes a lot of time to
supervise and making sure everything's going on.
MCCAMMON: But we have volunteer groups who and serve like a mission trip, where there's a youth group. This weekend we have sixth graders coming
from Jacksonville, Texas, and so we have a group of sixth graders coming in. And they're going to be here three days on a mission trip. First one they've ever done, coming in, and they'll be
cleaning, and they'll be organizing and they'll be helping work in the prayer gardens and the yard and we'll have them just all over the place working, giving them a hands-on experience of what
it means to do missions, what it means to help out other people, and to make a difference that will have an effect on other children and families.
MCCAMMON: And so I like for groups to be able to come in and have a taste of what it is to help someone else out, make a difference in the world,
and know that you're making a difference by what you've done. So we've had a couple of youth groups already, we've had some adult teams that have come in this summer as well. We curtailed it a
bit. Last year I had eight different groups who came in, eight different weeks. It really wore us out last summer. That was a very hard, long summer. All of them had really big groups. So this
year I limited it to just three groups to be able to come in for the summer, and it won't wear out my staff, of which is me and then my volunteers, which I call staff as well. But, I'm actually
the only paid staff. Everyone else who's here is a volunteer.
MCCAMMON: So it's very limiting when you're the only one that's a staff, but you just, fortunately God's been good, providing a lot of wonderful
volunteers, who come in and help us to be able to make it happen. So does that help answer that?
CHAMMAH: And you live here?
MCCAMMON: We live here. Yeah, we live here. My husband and I have a small apartment back here in the back, and then Wanda lives here in another
little apartment, as well as Nina, a small little bedroom apartment, that they have, to be here, to be able to help us. So yeah there's always someone here twenty-four hours a day, seven days a
week. There's always someone here, answering phones, accepting families, checking them in and out. Most of the families have reservations. They call us ahead of time. Sometimes we have
walk-ins, and that happens fairly often. Not as often as it seems like it did last year. I don't know why. I think they're just becoming more aware of it and so now they're calling in, or their
loved ones, the inmates, are telling them please call, make the reservation, so we're getting a lot more calls, or emails. They're doing online reservations through our website, which we're
getting a lot more online reservations coming in, which is good as well.
MCCAMMON: But we do accept walk-ins, when they come. Now, we don't have families here during the daytime. We only have families come in after
three o'clock in the afternoon to stay for the evening, spend the night, and then they eat breakfast and they check out in the morning. If they're going to be coming back for a second night—and
all that's determined by the distance that they drive, as to how many nights they're able to stay—then they're still gone during that daytime, from eight to three, because we stay so busy
during the day with groups dropping off food, bringing, in and out, cleaning, doing the laundry, cooking, vacuuming, all those things it takes to keep the house going every day. We don't like
to interfere with the guests, and so by just not having guests here during the daytime, they can make their visits, they can go shopping, they can go to the movie, they can do a lot of other
things in Huntsville. And then they're welcome to come back then after three o'clock. And then that gives us that eight to three time to do things like this. We can get all of our office work,
as well as the rest of the house things done during the daytime.
CHAMMAH: Is there coordination with T.D.C.J. [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] over when the visiting hours are?
MCCAMMON: There is, and we actually comply with T.D.C.J. in that they do, the number of hours the family is allowed to visit is determined by the
distance they drive. So if they're coming from Houston, they get a one-day two-hour visit. If they're coming from Miami, Florida, they would get a two-day, four-hour visit. And so, if they're
coming from overseas, they can have a multiple days' visit, with four visits, and a contact. So according to—we have set our policies—our board has set our policies accordingly. If a family:
one, they have to be from at least a hundred and twenty-five miles to stay here at all. And the reasoning for that is if a family is from Houston, and they come and make a two-hour visit, they
can get home before dark. Visitation's over at five o'clock. They can get home to their own bed well before dark, or before it gets late or dangerous on the highways.
MCCAMMON: However, if they're coming from Miami, Florida, they could not get home before dark after making a visit, so they are allowed a
two-night stay. They can come in and stay the night, make their visits, stay a second night, and then be able to drive home safely then that next day. So, they can make two-hour, two-day
visits, and be able to stay the two nights. So according to whatever T.D.C.J. has set as their policy guidelines, as far as the mileage, then ours is the same. So if it's a hundred and
twenty-five miles, they can come in for that day. If it's over three hundred, they can have two nights. If it's international or out of state, then determining how far out of state: if it's
Louisiana and on the border, they can't stay three nights. If you're talking Italy, which we've had come, or The Netherlands or Tasmania or Belgium or whatever—we've had eighteen different
countries here since I've been here—then they get to stay three nights. If they're going to be here two weeks, which is what a lot of them do, and they want to visit the next weekend, they have
to move to a hotel, stay then for a week at the hotel, and then they can come back and stay another three nights with us prior to their leaving and going home.
MCCAMMON: So according to however they set the policy standards is kind of how our board set ours as to whether it's a one-night visit, a
two-night visit or whether it's a three-night stay. But essentially they have to be from further away—it's none of the bordering states—or international really—to do a three-night, and then a
two-night stay for over three hundred miles to be able to do that. So it works out well. Most of the families are aware of that and there's not any problem. Because they want to get back home.
They're coming in to make their visit and then they're ready to go. They're not like trying to do a vacation in Huntsville. They just want to come in, do their visits, and then get on the road
again. So it's really not a—it's a non-issue.
CHAMMAH: I'd be curious to hear a little bit about Hospitality House's role on the days of executions, and how that changes things or what's—
MCCAMMON: It is a very different day, because on those days, we do have guests in the house, between that eight [8:00am] and three [3:00pm]. And
essentially the house is open and available for the families of those who are going to be executed, to be able to come in and stay the nights prior to the execution. For example, if the
execution is on a Wednesday, like last week, the execution's on a Wednesday, the family would be available to be able to stay on that Monday night and Tuesday night, because they can make those
final visits in the prison. They can go over to Death Row, they can visit with him there on that Monday, they can visit on Tuesday. Then the execution'll be here on Wednesday, so they'll be
able to stay those one or two nights prior to. So, the mileage limit really does not count against them. It's a non-issue on those days. We don't even worry about the mileage when they're
coming in for the execution.
MCCAMMON: On the day of the execution, they usually make a final visit from ten until twelve o'clock. They go over to the unit, Polunsky, in
Livingston. They make their visit there from ten until twelve, and then at twelve o'clock they have to leave, and it usually takes them about forty-five minutes to drive back to the Huntsville
area. Sometimes they'll come straight here. We have lunch provided and ready for them. So many of them come back here and they're ready to eat right then. Others of them—it's almost like they
need time together as a family at a separate location before they feel like there's going to be anybody around. So they may go to an area restaurant or a fast food place, somewhere to go get a
hamburger or something to sit down and eat and visit, talk, and kind of talk through what they just went through, that last visit, what was said, what happened, and gathering.
MCCAMMON: And it's not always family. Some of them are witnesses. Last week there was no family here. It was all his witnesses and friends who
were coming in. They came in from several different countries, as well as from Texas and other states that were represented here as a part of it. So it's really not just about family, but it's
also about the witnesses coming and being here as well.
MCCAMMON: Attorneys come and are also invited to stay for the day here, not to spend the night, but to stay for the day, when they're here
representing the family. If they have anyone—one of the executions a couple of weeks ago—two weeks ago—dealt with—a man from the Mexican consulate was here. So for that day we had the Mexican
consulate here. We also had his nuns who came in and were here during that time, and were his spiritual advisors. And then his family as well, who were here as a part of that. But we don't
allow media in on those days, so we have to ask the media to leave or not be present. We really try to protect, respect the privacy of the family, those grieving, protect the privacy of those
witnesses, by asking that no media be present on the property at all.
MCCAMMON: And we've been very fortunate. I've been very fortunate that the media has not presented a problem. They've been very gracious about
saying okay no problem, we'll go, we understand. So I've been very thankful for that. I'd heard a lot of stories about in the past, and so I was a little nervous, but they've been very gracious
and very understanding when I've asked them to leave, and just let them know that they couldn't stay.
MCCAMMON: And the families have been very appreciative. You know, it is a time of grieving. It's a hard time for them, as they try to sit here
with a lot of hope, hoping for a stay of execution. So the room is usually filled with expectation of, hoping that things will change and it won't happen, there will be a stay, there will be
that one phone call that will say okay, everything's off, it's done, it's not going to happen. The attorneys, even, will have that same—they'll continue to make phone calls, checking and seeing
how everything is going.
MCCAMMON: So the day's filled with expectation, there's a lot of nervous anxiousness. Sometimes they don't eat anything at all, because to eat would make them very sick, they're so nervous. Other times they eat everything in sight. It really depends on the personality of the individual. If they're a stress eater, they will eat every bit of chocolate we have out, every peanut butter cracker. They'll go through every Coke and Dr. Pepper we have in the refrigerator for them, or they'll go through the tea, bottles of water, whatever it is, their favorite comforting type thing.
MCCAMMON: So the foods we tend to do on those days are what I call comfort foods, you know, so we try to fix things that are not going to upset
the stomach, but would be more soothing, you know, macaroni and cheese, to casseroles, chicken and rice, chicken and dumplings. This last week I did roasted potatoes and carrots, and so you
know, try to do those comforting-type, feel-good foods that are soothing and natural. Nothing that they're going to wonder, What is this? Can I handle this? Nothing too spicy or whatever.
MCCAMMON: But the families just generally sit around and talk and visit. The chaplains are always here and available to meet with them, to answer
any questions, to help provide any kind of counseling for them. They receive their last phone call while they're here at this house, and we are the only place that's approved by the Texas
Department of Criminal Justice, and Governor Rick Perry, the State of Texas, essentially, that they can call. They can't call family members' cell phones, they can't call home and talk to
anyone. If they have a last phone call, the family has to be here to receive it, or the witnesses, friends. So if they want to talk to him on that last day, once they've left there with the
visit, they have to be here, in this house. If they are to receive his belongings, and anyone is acting as the executor, or anything like that, then they also have to be here. The chaplains
will only bring it here, to be able to give to the family. So if the family is here, the witnesses are here, the executor is, or whoever is going to receive the belongings, the wife or
whomever, they have to be here to be able to receive it.
MCCAMMON: So sometimes it's very interesting. It can go from, one group, they were here for an execution, there's a lot of laughter, there's a lot
of remembering all the fun times. So they're laughing, they're talking about the stories of "Remember when..." And even while they're on that phone call with him, they'll be laughing and
talking and doing that and passing the phone around and everybody's all excited. You know, and so it's just a really exciting time.
MCCAMMON: I've even had a mother and a grandmother, they're just singing praise verses and songs and praising the Lord and their church was
praying and they were all hyper and excited and everything was great, laughing and talking, and they thought he was going to get a stay of execution. He got one before, they expected him to get
it again, and it didn't happen.
MCCAMMON: So you know sometimes the high expectations that are then dashed the closer it gets to five o'clock, which is when they leave. The
chaplains meet with them at three o'clock to go over exactly what they'll witness while they're in the death chamber. So they sit down with all the witnesses, talk through all of those details
with them, so they make sure there's no surprises, no screaming, crying, they don't want anybody fainting, or anything. So they're very gentle, they're very caring in how they present that, and
try to really help prepare them. They're very sensitive to the families' needs at that time, and letting them know, to have enough information to be able to feel good about what they're going
to be doing as witnesses, but not to overwhelm and stress them unduly, or any further. So they're very careful in how they handle all that.
MCCAMMON: Then at five o'clock, they leave to go over to the unit then for the execution, if they've not gotten a phone call then by five o'clock,
then generally that means it's going to go through, and so they go on over there at five o'clock for the family to be able to go into the death chamber at that time. So, they'll go in for
MCCAMMON: So that's generally a day. Those are more stressful days because you don't know how the family will respond or react, or how the
witnesses, and we never know till they get here how many they're going to be bringing. So we may think they're bringing five or six, and we may end up with twenty-six that are here. "Well,
friends from our church wanted to come," or "More family came in than what we thought." So we may end up with a houseful, as in two weeks ago when we had thirty-six people here, or last week
when we had eight—ten—I think is what we ended up with; they had more that came with them later. So it just varies from week-to-week or month-to-month, according to when the executions are; and
it varies from man-to-man as far as his spiritual standing. If he knows the Lord and his family knows the Lord, generally they're more at peace with it. Now, they still want that stay of
execution: now that doesn't ever change. They want him to get that stay. But even the young man last week, he had already told his family and spiritual advisor, "I don't want a stay of
execution." And he told them that four months ago. So while his friends were still fighting to get him one, he didn't even want one. And he wasn't interested. He said, "I want to go home, be
with the Lord, I don't want to stay here in prison any longer, and I'm at peace with it."
MCCAMMON: He was totally at peace, and so it just, that varies, and all of that comes into play with those that are here as they come in. It's
always different, from family to family, you know, how it's made up and kind of where they're at and all of it's just very, very different.
CHAMMAH: Are certain ones very memorable for you?
MCCAMMON: Yes, there are some that have had, I think that I do, that I have more memory of than others. We had one that we had been told some
attorneys were going to, they were ready to sue anybody and everybody, so I was warned to be careful. There were going to be no witnesses other than the attorneys, no family coming, and just
these two attorneys were coming in. So the chaplains warned us to be very, very careful. And yet when they walked through the door, they were met with just, I think, the peace of the house and
the presence of Christ here in the house, and so within just a matter of a couple of minutes, you could watch their body language, they just went from being very tense and angry and ready to
fight and be mad at us and take on everything, to being just very relaxed and laid back and sitting down and drinking coffee, eating pie, eating food, visiting, and then hugging us as they were
leaving, thanking us for being here for them, asking me if I would help them set up a Hospitality House where they were from. They said, "We need one of these there. The families need to have
something like this."
MCCAMMON: So they went from being very worried and tense—Oh my gosh they're going to be ready to sue us all, angry, mad, they had been yelling,
shouting, threatening, all of this—to once they came in here, they were very relaxed.
MCCAMMON: And then I had two young men that were here last year, for the execution of their father—that was very, very memorable. I think part of
it was because it was so early on in my experience of being here. They were very young. They hadn't seen their father since they were very young. They needed some answers; you know, why he had
done what he had done, and why he had abandoned them. So that was very difficult. They were fine while they were here. They played games, they listened to music, they had a good time; and then
when it was all over there was a lot of hurt, anger, yelling, violence; they were throwing things; they were very confused and very angry at God, and at man, you know, at T.D.C.J., at the
State. They were angry at everybody and anybody but us. So I was able to just comfort them and cry with them and pray with them and hug them. And, so, that was very memorable for me to be able
to be a part of that time, for them, to just kind of bring them an assurance that it was okay, and that they had a heavenly Father who would never leave them, who would never abandon them, and
they could be as angry as they wanted to at Him; you know, it didn't matter how angry they were, or how mad, and what they called Him or what they said. He would still love them, and He wasn't
going anywhere, He wasn't going to change. He'd always be there.
MCCAMMON: And so being able to be there for those two boys at a very critical point was very moving for me. So, yeah, that's some memories of some
CHAMMAH: Yeah. And how do you personally deal with the emotional toll of these experiences, one after another?
MCCAMMON: You know, I don't know. Some of them are, like I said, some of them are harder than others. At the time, I do really well with them, and
I think that's because I have so many friends and family praying for me on the days of execution, that I do really well when they're here.
MCCAMMON: Later on, like in telling their stories, I have a more difficult time telling those stories, but at the time they're here, we do really
well with them, as far as just being available to them. And I think part of that is that I don't want to add any undue stress to them by my being emotional. My being emotional is not going to
take care of anything for them, and I don't feel like I can minister to them if I'm emotional. And I don't want to hinder the work that the chaplains are doing. If they're having to worry about
how I'm responding, or how I'm doing, then they can't do their work for the families.
MCCAMMON: And so we're here for the families to provide a safe place, a place of peace and comfort and solitude for them, to where they can grieve if
they need to, where they can laugh when they want to, but it's a safe environment for them, to protect them from the protesters, and all the junk that goes on over at the unit, all the
screaming and yelling, and megaphones, and the media, all up in their faces. Here, they're away from all of that, and so they can sit here, and they can laugh, they can cry, they can eat, they
can lay down and take a nap if they want to. We have a prayer room that some of them go into. We had a monsignor from the Vatican, that was here for one of the executions, and was here in
protest, and he even made use of the prayer room.
MCCAMMON: So you know we just allow them, literally, the run of the house. They can go out, and I found one of the family members, after everyone
had left for the execution, and she was crouched down on the floor of one of the bedrooms crying, and I actually thought I was here alone. And I kept hearing something, hearing something, and I
finally thought, there's a cat that's got in the house. It's just this little mewling type sound that a kitten or cat would make, and I thought, how did a cat get in?
MCCAMMON: And so I started walking, trying to identify where the cat was, and as I walked around the corner, looking, I finally realized that it was the
niece of the man, and she just could not go. I don't even know if they realized she had been left behind. But she did not go with the family when they went. And so she was just huddled in a
corner, in there crying. And so I just sat down with her and put my arm around her and just started rocking and praying over her, and crying with her. And just keep praying and talking to her,
and until she finally just relaxed and was at peace.
MCCAMMON: And I've done the same thing with a grandmother, who sat right there where you're sitting, reading her Bible, and singing to some of the
different hymns and songs I had on the C.D., they were playing softly. Then when I came over to sit down by her, she just asked me, "Why? I took him to church all the time. Why did this happen?
Where did I go wrong? What did I do wrong?"
MCCAMMON: And I think that's probably one of the hardest things that mothers and grandmothers and wives, especially mothers and grandmothers tend
to blame themselves and try to take on the responsibility of why he did what he did. And they try to blame themselves, rather than acknowledging that he was an adult, for the most part, most of
them. And he made a conscious decision. He made a choice. A bad choice, but he made a choice. And in some of the cases he made a choice over and over, when he killed multiple people. But that
he actually made the choice. They didn't do it. They didn't force him into it. They didn't tell him to go do it. It wasn't anything that they could have done any differently, because he chose
to do what he did, and so trying to reassure them that they as a mother, as a grandmother did not do anything wrong, is a big part of what I see as a part of my ministry, is trying to help them
understand, and just share God's love with them, and assurances that it wasn't them that did it.
MCCAMMON: But we get that on a daily, and even a weekend basis, of mothers and grandmothers or wives, and others that try to, because their loved
one made a bad choice, their families suffer, which is why we say we share God's love, share God's grace with the other victims of crime. Because the families are actually victims of the crime.
They may not have been murdered, or their home burglarized, or whatever happened, but they're victims because of the way society treats them. And so because of that the children will suffer
from now on. We've had wives and mothers who have lost their jobs because they had a son or a husband who was incarcerated. We've had- of course, they don't say that, because you can't, it's a
discrimination, but they have.
MCCAMMON: And we've had families who are treated differently within their own communities, by society, because of having a loved one incarcerated.
And so society as a whole, the way they treat the families is very, very hard on them. And so because of that the families really struggle they know that, they sense it, they feel it. And so
when that happens, then they have a really hard time trying to feel respected, or to feel like they can even have a life, or for these children to feel like they can have a normal life,
whatever normal is.
MCCAMMON: And yet our statistics in Texas show that one out of every five families, within the State of Texas, have someone, or are connected to
someone who is incarcerated. One out of every five families in Texas. And that's a statistic from 2010. So it's still very current. I'm not sure what it is this year.
MCCAMMON: But one out of every five. And then eighty-six percent of all children who have one or more parent incarcerated, will they themselves
become incarcerated, which is staggering when you think of the statistics here for the state as far as how many we have incarcerated across the state. And you look at the number of men and
women, and then you look at the number of children and see they're going to be affected unless we have an opportunity.
MCCAMMON: So I feel like that's something this house can do, that we can offer the families not only a safe place, but a place they can be
respected, that they feel loved, that they feel the love of God, as well as the love from myself and our staff. We treat them with courtesy and respect. We don't look down on them, we don't put
any blame on them or their families.
MCCAMMON: Or even grandmas are raising the grandchildren because their sons- There's just none of that goes around, but that everybody's on even
ground. They can talk, they can visit, they can play, they can laugh, they can feel good about who they are here, when they're here, and be able to visit with other families that are in their
same situations when they're here.
MCCAMMON: So it's a very safe environment for them to be in and be a part of, as we're here with it. So those days are different, and they are
challenging. But it always varies, like I said, according to the families and what the families need. Some families don't want you anywhere near them, and so we're very much stand off-ish at
that time. We'll allow them to be in here, just them, and other than feeding them or getting them something to drink, or checking in on them, we really pretty much back off and let them have
MCCAMMON: Others very much want to, "What is this place? Where have ya'll been? Can we have a tour? Tell us more about it. What do you do every
day?" They really want to be more involved. But we get letters. I received a letter last week from a mother of a young man who was executed last year, and she sent us a donation this year, and
a note that just said, thank you for taking care of us. I mean it was a beautiful note, and that she took the time to write it this year and do that meant a lot, and then I had a fiancé of a
young man who had been executed send a note.
MCCAMMON: And so we're starting to receive some things like that, like a year later. At the time they may not know really how to put it into
words, or they may, they may say thank you. We had a family that left here one day of execution, went to the funeral home, they view the body and make all those arrangements, and from there
they went to a store and bought a clock and brought us back a clock, so that we would have a clock in the house here for the families to watch. They said, "We noticed you don't have a clock."
So they went and bought us a clock to have here, so that families could keep up with the time while they sat and waited.
MCCAMMON: So it just varies according to the family it's always different. It's always different. You can't ever prejudge or predetermine what the
day is going to be like. You just never know until it's here and happening.
Debra McCammon is the executive director of Hospitality House, a nonprofit ministry of the Texas Baptist Prisoner Family Foundation, providing complimentary temporary lodging, food, and spiritual counsel and witness for visiting families, friends and other guests of those incarcerated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (T.D.C.J.) in the Huntsville area. McCammon has been affiliated with the House since 1989, first as a volunteer and then as a member of the board of directors from 2001 to 2009, before becoming executive director in November 2009. In Video 1, McCammon describes the origins of Hospitality House, its history since its construction in 1986 and the participation of her church in its construction; her role as volunteer and board member; the duties and challenges she has faced as executive director; the procedures for running the House on a typical day; the role of the House on days of scheduled executions; and her experiences with and memories of staff, volunteers and guests of the House. In Video 2, McCammon elaborates on the origins of House, its relationship with local Chaplains; its relationship to T.D.C.J.; her vision of the importance of the House as a source of comfort and refuge for the families of prisoners and her efforts to raise awareness of the mission of the House and the needs of families. McCammon then gives a tour of the House, describing various items, including artwork by inmates and gifts from guests, and noting each room's history, function and significance. Throughout Video 2, McCammon continues to share anecdotes and stories of her experiences working at the House and her commitment to her spiritual mission. In Video 3, McCammon concludes her tour of the House, and shares her appreciation for all the volunteers that help shape and sustain the Hospitality House. This interview took place on July 25, 2011 at the Hospitality House in Huntsville, Walker County, Texas.
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Debra McCammonRole: Narrator
Texas After Violence ProjectRole: Collaborator
Maurice ChammahRole: Interviewer
Kalli HendersonRole: Videographer
Maurice ChammahRole: Transcriber
Shane CruzRole: Transcriber
Virginia Marie RaymondRole: Proofreader
Rebecca LorinsRole: Proofreader
Rebecca LorinsRole: Writer of accompanying material
Shane CruzRole: Writer of accompanying material
Students from United World CollegeRole: Writer of accompanying material
Texas After Violence Project
University of Texas Libraries
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North America--United States--Texas--Huntsville
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