VIRGINIA RAYMOND: Today is April seventeenth, 2011, and we are here in Austin, Texas, with Mr. Edgar—
EDGAR FINCHER: Edgar Fincher
RAYMOND: Edgar Fincher
FINCHER: Yes, ma’am.
RAYMOND: Celeste Henery is behind the camera, Dr. Celeste Henery. My name is Virginia Raymond and we are here from the Texas After Violence Project and we are here to interview Mr. Fincher on a Sunday afternoon. And just for the record, we explained the process to you of what’s going to happen with the interview, you signed the consent form. Do you have any other questions?
RAYMOND: No? Okay. Well, thank you very much for letting us be here with you this afternoon and perhaps I can just ask you to start by telling us a little bit about your background, where you grew up, sort of life before you started working with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
FINCHER: Sure. Sure. I grew up in a, uh, upper-middle-class neighborhood. This is dated July, 1974, it’s a three-thousand-square-foot house that I grew up in, in Spring, Texas. And, we also, also owned a lake house—
RAYMOND: Oh, beautiful.
FINCHER: You know, and all that came to a screeching halt when I turned fifteen and my parents got divorced and that’s when I went from middle-class to food stamps and lower middle-class. It was a very nasty divorce. Very nasty divorce. We still have the lake house. The house is, it’s what it is.
My, I never had any, when I was growing up I never had any violence, the only violence we had was football, you know. I never had--my parents always kept their arguments or disagreements away from us so we were never hurt, abused, psychologically, emotionally, size and presence, none of that ever happened. Okay. And so through high school of course we separated, I with my mother, and my first job with--when I moved to Texas City, it’s on the main side of Galveston, okay, you know where that’s at?
FINCHER: Okay. My first job there was with the Emken-Linton Funeral Home and I do have a sense of humor. [Displays black-and white photograph of a young man peeking out through the rear window of a hearse.]
RAYMOND [to Henery]: Can you see that?
FINCHER: That’s a buddy of mine. We were joking and, you know, kids, kids’ll be kids. So I worked for the funeral home and assisted in every which way I could and I did that for a year and a half and then I went on to college. Okay. My mom supported me in college. Money got tight and I had to find—I was in Huntsville, my sister graduated so I followed her footsteps, you know, she was my mentor and I got accepted to Sam Houston State University.
I was going to major in English but when I had financial problems I had to find a job and the only job that was actually paying decent money was T.D.C.J., so I went, applied, like a lot of my friends, and didn’t hear back for a year and so finally I--I was working in Galveston at the time, they said come up and test and I tested and I was accepted and I went on to do a two-week training course in, in Gatesville, Texas, that’s right there, right down the road from Mountain View, which the women’s Death Row is at. That was my first experience with Death Row, was, a uh a guided tour through the women’s Death Row, which is really different than the men’s. The women have separate, I would say, brick cottages. There’s not that many women on Death Row.
So, after that two-week—I don’t know—I had problems with the two-week. You know, I come from the suburbs, you know, parents get divorced and then I’m shuttled to a two-week training and all of a sudden you’re assigned to a unit. Well, I just so happened to land on Ellis 1 unit, Death Row. So, don’t think I didn’t call mama and tell me, tell her I want to come home. Excuse me.
But, I stuck it out with the support of my family and I, uh, I started going back to school. This is eighty-five. I went to Sam Houston State. I didn’t get my degree until ninety-six, so you can understand, I was taking classes when I could.
So, I graduated from Sam Houston State University in December of ninety-six.
The brunt of my, uh, what I would do was, I’d work a ten, two p.m. to ten p.m. shift and I would go to school from eight to twelve, right, until I got on the escort team which was an eight to five, Death Row, and then I would go to school from six to nine.
No social life.
And then when I graduated I went on to the um—now, let me backtrack. The, when, when I was on Death Row from May of eighty-nine to about July of ninety-four and then from July of ninety-four to about late ninety-seven I was with the internal affairs division headquarters.
And then from that time until 1999 I was with the state jail division headquarters. Okay, and that’s, I’ll explain, that will all come together.
So, that’s basically my ten years.
Okay, I was twenty when I started working on Death Row, basically grew up.
You know. And, yeah, I was scared. I was scared for about two weeks.
Then after that I said, I was twenty, you know, full of testosterone, ready to rock ‘n’ roll.
I’ll tell you, I’ll be frank, I would listen and jack myself up on hard rock ‘n’ roll music, to amp myself up, to be prepared for the day because you don’t know where you’re going to be and you don’t know what’s going to be happening, but your senses are all on overdrive when you go in there, because this is Ellis 1, this is the—
We had hand cranks, pull pins, hand cranks, old school. We had tiers, one, two, and three.
We would go down, I worked administrative segregation, Death Row, so we would have that crank to open the crank doors, you know, the doors, pull the pin, and that’s the door you’d crank open. You understand?
RAYMOND: Yeah. You said hand cranks and then tiers, one, two, three?
FINCHER: Yeah. You’d have to go up a flight of stairs to get the second one—
RAYMOND: I see.
FINCHER: Go up another flight of stairs to get the third one, you know, and so that’s what we did, you know, and we would have to handcuff to the what we call food slot, we’d handcuff ‘em every time they came out of the, of the cell and um I was, in ninety-one was when I really started to get into it.
Eighty-nine, ninety I was just kind of shell-shocked, you know, and uh by the grace of God I had some officers take me under their wing and show me, and by ninety-one I was in my element, you know.
I’d been shanked twice, dislocated shoulders, more black eyes than a can of black-eyed peas, chipped teeth, just, you name it.
I was in the infirmary more than the inmates were, you know, but, you know, you have to save face.
Every time I had an injury I was back at work the next day.
You know, you have to save face, you know, and the guys that had shanked me apologized to me, believe it or not, apologized: "I wasn’t going for you."
We have a rolling shield, okay? It’s acrylic, it’s plastic, right, and one officer would be in front and one officer would be in back and we would open up a cell and the individual would be going, you know, around it there, and we would roll him all the way down to the showers, okay?
Now, granted these guys weren't the best shot, they’d make little spears, you know, and it was like, it was pretty traumatic, you know. I mean, when was the last time you got stuck by a spear, you know?
And I’m like, you know, hey, man, I was playing tennis, I was the country club kid, you know, I wasn’t Richie Rich or anything like that, but, you know, I was the installment man playing at school. You know, I wanted to do it.
And like I said earlier, I’m going back and forth, I’m maybe not a real good speaker, but I’m gonna try my best, but when you have that type of scenario and than I have to start paying for school on my own, I was an English major like my sister, I said, you know, my mentor.
As I got the job with Internal Affairs it just, it just enticed me.
I was just totally, I just, I got into it. I said, wow, this is something I’ve never seen before.
I’d go down I-45 and I would see the women at the Goree Unit, you know, and I would, we’d go to the, uh, religiously we would go to the Prison Rodeo at the Walls Unit, if you’ve ever known about that.
You’d have, Willie Nelson would be playing, you know, and they’d have the bulls out there and they’d try to get the money, and I basically, it’s kind of weird, I basically grew up around Huntsville.
I spent fourteen years there, ten which was employment and the others was, were school-related.
So, with that said, I started to understand what was going on, and these things I wanted to give you. I need them back. But, these are “officer of the month.”
I didn’t get my picture on them but don’t give me Donald’s or anything. But these are commendations for, and I’m not being braggadocio, of these documents.
RAYMOND [to Henery}: See that?
FINCHER: You can have them if I can get them back. If you need to do that.
RAYMOND: Sure. We’ll probably make PDF’s of them so that we can, or copy them.
RAYMOND: But thank you, “officer of the month.” While I’m looking at these, while I’m looking at these, can I ask you, go back and ask you a couple questions? So, the two-week training you had was for correctional officers in general, is that correct, not specifically about Death Row?
FINCHER: It was a joke. The two-week training was a joke.
RAYMOND: Tell us about it.
FINCHER: It, they, it was in no, and I’m loyal to T.D.C.J., you know, and they did the best they could, okay?
T.D.C.J. gets the lowest bidder, they don’t pay the greatest, they get the G.E.D., high school diploma, they have generations of correctional officers that have always been correctional officers, it’s like a family thing, same with kind of cops and firefighters, you know, but the two-week training did not prepare me mentally about what was going be going on. Never.
You had to do it on your own and deal with it on your own.
Back then, there was no counseling. Back then, there was no anger management.
There was no classroom time to discuss things. I hope it’s gotten better, you know, but I felt a little ousted, you know, because they kind of, you know, threw you in, it was like they threw you in, sink or swim, you know, and they expect you to, to do it, you know, and that was just the norm. In eighty-nine, that was the norm. So, I was like, oh, well, if I can survive this I’ll be all right. You know, and I did, and it was much, as I look back, hindsight is twenty-twenty, and I reflect, I see that I cannot believe I had ever went though this but I consider it the same thing, not as intense but on the, on the same level as when the eighteen-year-olds and nineteen-year-olds got this little crash course in training at boot camp then they threw them out in Nam.
Same thing here. You get a crash course, two weeks, and they throw you with the killers, okay?
I was hoping for general population. Well, I scored on all my stuff and they, and they sent me straight—I wanted to be in Huntsville because I wanted to go to school so they put me on Death Row, and they used to call me “Seg Baby” because of that administrative segregation and I was the youngest on Death Row as an officer until this day.
You know, and it’s nothing to be proud of, it’s just that I just so happened to, you know, fall in that, that niche.
But a lot of the, the—if you make it six months, or you’re gone, you know. You can’t, you can’t do, you know, you can’t do it half. You got to be all into it, and I take my job seriously.
And transported I’d rather not say how many to the death chamber, Ellis 1 to the Huntsville Unit, commonly referred to as the Walls.
I was part of the goon squad; you get all the gear on and everything and you strap them down.
It’s more than a dozen. More than—okay, seventeen. Seventeen.
And – about after that the nightmares started to kick in.
Cold sweats, waking up, sleepless nights. Relationships, pffft. No. My whole language, my whole perception, my whole persona changed.
You know, I’d go home, I’d be cursing more, I would be using slang, gang terms.
Again, city boy. City boy. You know, and I would, and, and people, you know, they would, they would, they would love my family members.
They’d go, "Oh wow, that was, that was, what do you think?" And that’s the last thing you want to talk about, if you’re a cop you don’t want to talk about cop stuff, you want to decompress.
You want to, you want to, you know, have that “me time,” you know, and it never felt like I never had that. I never really had that.
So, you know, um ,that was okay, you know, because back then, at my age, you know, I was the center of attention so I kind of liked it, you know.
At the same time, I didn’t, because I wanted to appease them but then again I had this dead feeling inside of me, you know.
I worked for five years and there was about four hundred and some change Death Row inmates.
I knew them all, their personalities, I spoke to them, you know, they were so segregated that we had to do D-rings to give them their lunch, you know.
RAYMOND: You said, a "D-ring." What’s a D-ring?
FINCHER: It’s a, it’s a little chain link that you kind of unscrew to keep the, uh, and then you would bring down the food slot, put that in there, put it in there, give them the drink, put it, and then screw it back on.
And so I knew everybody there and I was there probably the longest in that particular department and when, when, I knew these guys and when I had to take them and I had to because I was part of the squad, you know, I’d have to man up, I’d have to say, my job!
This is what I do. You know, I don’t know your, your history, your past, I don’t care to, but what was the most intriguing thing about this is that, however horrific it was I treated them with respect in order to regain respect.
And that was the hardest thing to do because I’m, I mean, not me personally, but one might say, "How can you communicate with the scum of the earth?" You know?
And I didn’t look at them like that. I didn’t look at them like that. I have to work with these people. I spent more time with Death Row inmates than I did girlfriends and my family. You know?
In a sick kind of way, they were my family. You know? And sometimes, you know, the ones that were on meds, I was feeling pretty good about.
But the ones that would refuse meds and that were very violent, you know, like, we would have, I was part of the cell extraction team.
They would baby-oil themselves up, baby-oil the cell, and we’d have to go in ‘cause they had two shanks and, you know, I was the smallest guy, minus forty pounds, you know, and you know how you are at twenty, you’re always, you know, we were pumping iron and all that stuff and, and I remember Kelvin Scott would grab me behind the vest, ‘cause we had vests on, helmets, elbow pads, and we would run in, it was a train, five of us would go in and the guy had a shank, wrapped, in each arm, course Kelvin said, and I had the face shield, you know, the big, you know, riot shield, and I would go in, and Kelvin, he was gargantuan, he would literally pick me up and just totally shove me into the, the inmate, okay?
And we’d—he’d throw the shield away, I’d grab one hand, he would grab the other, you know, and we’d hold him until we could, you know, we dog-piled him, just basically, you know, what you had to do. And we removed both shanks—and this is one instance of a, many—and it was such a dog-pile that they handcuffed the inmate and then they handcuffed me to the inmate, which was, that’s how I got my shoulder dislocated.
But, every day—I mean, some days were, were smooth, but every day I would have to jack myself up and my senses were heightened.
By the time I got off the shift, I was spent, you know, and then that’s when I said, what I need to do, I need to go back to school, and that’s what I did, you know, after ninety-one.
And so a lot of that I can say without reservation that the inmates liked me.
The only reason they did is because I treated them equally and I treated them with respect.
Now, there were some inmates that were just mad at the world. You’d be a little more, I mean, to me, I treated all the inmates the same; they’re all dangerous.
I had one inmate tell me, I, I read a book on him, I was going to bring books, but, you know, books are books, and I would read some of their, I would read like books on, on their, because I was curious, and I went up to, to one inmate, he’s Hispanic, he’s dead now, asked him, I said, "You were mad at your wife, and I understand that." We had a rapport.
I said, "But why did you have to kill everybody in the house?"
And he would say, "Well, they, they were home. They were at the wrong place at the wrong time." With his temperament, you know.
And he goes, "I didn’t want to, but I was just, that’s the way I was."
And so all of these stories, all the stories from the Death Row inmates, they would confide in me because they trusted me and I wasn’t trying to—I’m a good listener, you know, and the most important part about communication is listening and so I listen to them, I give them that respect and I don’t, I didn’t, I never judged them and that’s what really kept—that’s why I stayed, you know, but not a day goes by when I hear that door shut-- bam!
The clanging of the doors, the clicking of the cuffs, you know—
Yeah, I think it’s P.T.S.D.. A little G.A.D., generalized anxiety disorder.
A little, little bipolar, now--they called it manic depression, back then.
And, you know, I, to me, counselors need counselors. They didn’t have that back then. They didn’t, and I wasn’t really up on the psychotropic stuff, you know.
When we decompressed after work it was a tailgate and a twelve-pack, and this is back in eighty-nine, ninety-four.
You know. Not good. I got tired of that. Got it, I mean, the guys, they’re all from corn-fed, you know, this is the best job they’ve ever had, they’re ever going to have, you know, and I, I realized that and I said, I need, I need to get it together and I did and I did seek, uh, I, I mean I wasn’t like, you know, an alcoholic, or drinking or anything, but when we had a rough night, and we had to, you know, go into a cell extraction or we had a riot or suicide or a death, I experienced all that.
I cut down a guy that was dead, went in to, you know, riot situations, threatening to cut them, their throat, you know, solitary guy bled out, I was down there, but a lot of these things, uh I, I started seeing some counseling to see if, if, uh I did the E.A.P. thing.
FINCHER: Employee Assistance Program, and I said, all right, I’ll give it a shot because the girlfriend at the time said, you know, you might want to think about that, this. I would wake up and I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I was manic.
You know, wake up in cold sweats, wake up jumping out of bed ready to take on the world, you know. So I did, and it helped a lot, helped a lot, and, but, you can’t shake it. Can’t shake it.
I don’t watch prison movies. I don’t watch any crap. But the stuff I’m about to show you is, is, is stuff that you, I was into it. I was into it. I was, I don’t know, just seems crazy.
RAYMOND: I wonder if I can go, ask you to go back and explain some of these terms, things that you used, terms that you used in situations you’ve mentioned, but before we do that even, could you take us through, like, let’s just say an ordinary day. I know there were probably no ordinary days—
RAYMOND: What was your regular routine when you were working on Death Row?
FINCHER: I’d leave my apartment, get in my Nissan Sentra, and I would put in a, you know, tape, just ready to just get yourself pumped up. You know. Kind of get ready, and we’ll be, go to turnout. That’s when all of us, that’s kind of like the police turnout, here’s what the duties of the day, look at this, we need to watch out for this guy, you know, and we’re all in a room about this size. Okay?
RAYMOND: How many people?
FINCHER: Mmmm, probably twenty-six. Yeah. And they would what we call debrief us and then they would have a clipboard and they would say, you know, Fincher and Simpson, you’re on D-2, this, that, and this, they would assign us the blocks and they were all three tier high.
You know, you had to have that, if you’ve ever seen those big, long keys, you know, we’d have the keys and this, that, and the other.
We would, we were two to ten so we were feeding lunch about the time we were taking the guys out, all right, say for instance this is a recreational yard, okay? The first thing we would be doing is taking the inmates out of the recreational yard, handcuffed, escorted them with two officers back to their cell. So, that’s what we would do.
RAYMOND: Two officers per person?
FINCHER: Per, per inmate.
RAYMOND: Oh, per inmate. Okay.
FINCHER: Per cell block, two officers, and we’re talking a whole row of people, like, twenty-one people, maybe, maybe thirty.
And then they would bring the, the food and they, and they would bring it because they can’t go to the general pop, down to the chow hall and so what would happen is, they would, we would have to bring the food and, and we would make the trays and then, then the, the orderlies would take it up and we would supervise them.
Some inmates, we wouldn’t let them give them food because of the problems.
RAYMOND:So orderlies would give, like, let’s say, a regular inmate on Death Row the food but if there, if there was a problem—
FINCHER: Well, I would say they wouldn’t give them the food, I would say they would carry it up because we’re talking three flights of stairs with, there’s only thing, expanded metal grate, metal grate stairs and you would have nothing but concrete and re-bar.
That’s all you would have. And so what would happen is, sometimes they would help feed, you know, if you were short-handed.
We’d do what we had to do to get the job done.
And, uh, and after that they’d slide their trays under the door and orderlies would, would pick ‘em up and, and then we would take another recreational—well, actually, after that we would take ‘em to the shower because they had already eaten, had done recreation and eaten, and we’d take ‘em to the shower, one by one.
You know, sometimes they would take the shower hostage, which means we’d have to suit up and go get ‘em, you know.
RAYMOND: What did you mean by “take the shower hostage”?
FINCHER: That’s my little term I use. It means that "I ain’t comin’ out. Come get me." You know? So, they would take it hostage which would totally screw up the rest because the other guys couldn’t take a shower.
They had a shower to each, of each row. [Drawing on white board] That’s a really good marker. Each row, and this is the main— that’s too hot--
RAYMOND: I wonder if the red one would work.
FINCHER: Yeah. You think? Okay. Okay.
You had three tiers. This is the top one. This is the end of the tiers. You had twenty-one, twenty-one cells, individual cells, on each tier.
Sorry. Maybe I didn't do it right. One, two—yeah, I did. Yeah, and it caps off up here.
So you got one, two, three, and these are flights of stairs we would have to go up, okay?
And so we would have to go, like, say, third row, which was a bitch, I mean, because, you know, you have to, you have to actually go all the way downstairs and come back up because you would have to take them straight from there, you know, to their cells.
So we had one, two three tiers, twenty-one, so you’re talking about sixty-three people. Right?
And we would do one row. Each shift would do one row at a time so, you know, depending on which one it was.
The showers were right here because we would have the, the clothes, and the clean clothes, right here, showers here, we would put them through, they had their names on their clothes, so we all knew, they had, they had like little cubbyholes, little locker slots, you know, wooden.
We would give them the clothes and then they would go back, after they would put the clothes on they would go back.
RAYMOND: Let me just ask you, where is the yard in relationship to this?
FINCHER: It’s adjacent. Right down here. It’s, let's see, it’s on the other side of the, of this.RAYMOND: Of the stairs.
FINCHER: Yeah. There’s a, a dayroom with a television set and some four stainless steel tables, maybe two or three to play dominoes, and there was a recreation yard where you could play volleyball and basketball and whatnot.
Now, the Ad. Seg. guys had to be by themselves so there was a difference between an administrative segregation Death Row inmate and a Death Row inmate.
RAYMOND: Where were the Ad. Seg. people, or were they just—
FINCHER: Oh, no, they were isolated.
RAYMOND: In relationship to this?
FINCHER: The same scenario, but they all had to recreate, see, that was the problem, they recreated by gangs, so I had the Aryan Brotherhood, Texas Mafia, Mexican Syndicate, and then, you know, the other little cliques, skinheads, all that. They would let them recreate together because it would keep the peace.
See what I’m saying? So, and never we had any bloodshed, I have some stuff here about some murders that happened, some on my shift, some not, but no one ever escaped on my shift and nobody ever died.
You know. But, for the most part the, the inmates, they knew we were way outnumbered and that unit that I worked at, Ellis 1 was just a rat trap.
It was terrible. I mean, there were so many things wrong with it. That’s why you had your old Texas Seven.
Not your Texas Seven, that was a different unit, that’s, that’s how you had so many attempted escapes and I have that documentation for you, for your reading pleasure.
RAYMOND: Can I ask you what a cell extraction is?
FINCHER: Sure. It’s—
RAYMOND: What causes that? I mean, what makes you need to do that?
FINCHER: Policy and an inmate’s inability to comply with orders.
Like, we, you know, we have, if he’s, if he’s, some guys just go off and they say they’re just sick of the world and, you know, they say, “ain’t coming out for shower,” don't really want to eat, and if they have weapons it’s policy that we go in and we get them, we get the weapons because, you know, we’re responsible.
We maintain custody of these inmates.
We have to make sure that, believe it or not, we, we have to make sure of the safety of the inmates.
We don’t want them committing suicide.
We don’t want them- they were like, the nurses would go around, the L.V.N.’s, and distribute medication, some of that medication you could stock up on and commit suicide, but we would have to escort the L.V.N.’s and the L.V.N.’s would give them their pill and a little bit of water and they’d make them open their mouth up.
Now, here’s something, a little thing that I’m, that challenges my masculinity, is every time we took those guys out to rec. or eat or whatever, or for shower, strip search.
Give me your clothes, lift your tongue, rub through your hair—
Edgar Fincher worked as a correctional officer on the Ellis Unit (Death Row) in Walker County, TX from 1989 to 1994. He then went on to work for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) as an internal affairs investigator from 1994-1997 and with the State Jail Division from 1997-1999. In Tape 1, Fincher describes his childhood background; how he became involved with TDCJ; his early career as a correctional office in the Ellis Unit; and his experiences with trauma resulting from his work. In Tape 2, Fincher describes what a typical day working on death row was like. In Tape 3, Fincher elaborates on his work on the death row and the strain associate with it; displays materials and documents collected during his career; and describes his later career in TDCJ Internal Affairs and with the State Jail Division. In Tape 4, Fincher discusses the transition from correctional officer on death row to a career with Internal Affairs; discusses the issues that arise when working in a high risk job; describes his current career; shows materials collected during his career as a correctional officer; and describes experiences with inmates executed between 1989 and 1994. In Tape 5, Fincher describes his experience with inmates who were executed between 1989 and 1994 while he was working in the Ellis Unit. In Tape 6, Fincher gives his concluding statements about his work with TDCJ and his experiences working on death row. This interview took place on April 17, 2011 in Austin, TX.
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Edgar FincherRole: Narrator
Texas After Violence ProjectRole: Collaborator
Virginia RaymondRole: Interviewer
Celeste HeneryRole: Videographer
Mary O'GradyRole: Transcriber
Emma McDanielRole: Proofreader
Emma McDanielRole: Writer of accompanying material
Maurice ChammahRole: Proofreader
Texas After Violence Project
University of Texas Libraries
North America--United States--Texas
North America--United States--Texas--Austin
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