Maximum Insecurity

What the Texas Seven taught us about our state's prison system.

Now that the saga of the not-so-Magnificent Seven is over—and isn’t it a little embarrassing that the escapees’ idea of freedom was to spend nearly a month cooped up in an RV playing Christian music and putting yellow dye on their hair?—it’s time to try to figure out what this whole mess has taught us. Namely, was this escape a total fluke, carried out by some convicts who, as it turned out, weren’t half as smart as we thought they were? Or was it one more sign of a Texas penal system gone awry?

Since the breakout on December 13, just about anyone remotely connected with Texas law enforcement has weighed in on the way the state treats its inmates, the way it tries (or doesn’t try) to rehabilitate them, and what it must do to make sure they don’t make desperate attempts to get out. Improbably, the mother of Aubrey Hawkins, the Irving police officer brutally murdered during the escapees’ Christmas Eve robbery, has transformed herself into a spokesperson for penal reform, regularly holding press conferences to comment on the inefficiency of the officials at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice ( TDCJ) and the prisons they have created.

Not that it takes an expert to see that something has gone terribly wrong between the kept and their keepers. At the Connally Unit near Kenedy, which is the tenth-largest prison in Texas, with 2,800 inmates, the guards and civilian employees were so lax about prison procedures that the escapees were literally able to drive right out the back gate. The all-important radio tower guard, the last barrier between an inmate and the free world, didn’t go to the trouble of checking the identification of two inmates disguised as maintenance workers before letting them come into the tower guard post, where guns and ammunition were stashed. For several years the seven escapees watched the way the guards and the employees failed to provide adequate supervision. They also must have realized that the supervisors at the prison weren’t exactly intent on policing their own staff. As one guard later told a reporter, Connally officials were so determined for the unit to win national accreditation that security had taken a back seat. “The main focus is getting the unit cleaned up,” he said.

In their 83-page report on the escape, however, TDCJ officials lay the blame squarely on the guards’ lapses—which, while accurate, is hardly fair. “Anybody who is well versed in the corrections business is going to be aghast at this report,” says Austin attorney Steve Martin, a former Texas prison guard who later served as general counsel for the TDCJ in the eighties and who now is one of the nation’s most respected consultants on prison conditions. “The number of breaches that had to coalesce to let these men escape represents to me a very fundamental, systemic security

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