Houses offer support to death row families

I nearly missed deadline.As a journalist, each article I write has a deadline. Fragments of information for this article had been gathered throughout the previous week, with a pending Monday evening interview with Dorothy Miller-El serving as the glue with which to bind my facts.The “interview,” because of time constraints on both our sides, was more of a brief meetinga simple exchange of niceties rather than raw information.Writing this story late Monday evening, I realized that, as a reporter, I am allowed to miss deadlines.Yet I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What if a deadline gets missed on Texas’ death row?”For the past 15 years, the life of Thomas and Dorothy Miller-El has been one big deadline. They are in a race against a powerful justice system that was over from the moment it began. The two will not win the racethey will not meet deadline.”I do stay busy,” admitted Dorothy Miller-El. Understandable, considering her husband is to be executed in two weeks.Her days are long, filled with last-minute legal work to sort through, visits to death row, an interview or twothen it’s off to the airport to pick-up another stranger to counsel for a few days. Counsel she could probably use herself.For nearly four years, Dorothy has been doing a job many argue should be done by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. While TDCJ is to be commended on its Victim Services Division, which offers aid to family members who have been affected by a crime, the state agency should be condemned for its Offender Family Services Division.Condemned because there isn’t any such division.With the exception of some guidelines on the TDCJ Web site and aChaplain visit offered to family members on the day of an inmate’s execution, virtually nothing is offered by the state to help family members of inmates scheduled for execution during their trying time.An inmate might be a bad person, but does that make their loved ones bad?Dorothy doesn’t seem to think so. In 1998, she opened the Heritage House, a mobile home that serves as a warm blanket to envelop those visiting loved ones on Texas’ death row. Funding the house out of her own pocket and relying off the donations of others, she created the Heritage House to accommodate family and friends of inmates free of charge when they come to attend an execution.”To me, the idea of staying at an Interstate motel is too impersonal and too uncomfortable for such circumstances,” said Dorothy. “I’ve tried to create a welcome environment that is sympathetic to the loved ones of death row prisoners.”Dorothy not only houses visitors during executions, but will shuttle them to and from the airport, the Polunsky Unit, even restaurants. Often times, she seems to be the only counsel strangers to Huntsville have.When I asked TDCJ Public Information Officer Larry Fitzgerald about the services offered to offender family members, his words were few.While he didn’t mention the Heritage House, he did comment, “The Hospitality House takes care of helping the offenders family members,” then adding, “but that’s run by the Baptist church.””We don’t get one penny from the Texas Department of CriminalJustice,” said a spokesman for the Hospitality House, located on 10th Street. Built in 1986, the Hospitality House is funded by the Texas Baptist Prison Family Ministry Foundation and private donations.Much like Dorothy’s Heritage House, the Hospitality House aims to provide shelter, care, and counsel for family members of victims incarcerated by TDCJ. It provides services free of charge to anyone who is in need of a host during visits to Huntsville area prisons.Two houses, both havens of hope to visitors in unfamiliar east Texas territory who are treading the treacherous waters of the prison system.The mindset of people like Dorothy who aid offender family members during executions is that the family of an offender, too, faces a death. Though justified by law, the void left by the loss of a convicted criminal parallels the void left by a victim in the hearts of their family.The first time I met Dorothy, she was consoling the sister of an offender outside the Walls Unit during an execution because there was not space in the observation room of the death chamber to accommodate all the offender’s family members. The sister became the living embodiment of pain shortly after 6 p.m., when she knew her brother had probably taken his last breath on earth. Nearly collapsing in anguish, Dorothy picked her up and did what TDCJ had failed to dosimply offer a little support.Dorothy Miller-El will need support on Feb. 21. The circumstances being reversed, however, I wonder just who will be there to counsel her.

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