WHEN THE MEDIA GOT HOLD OF A THIRTY-MINUTE videotape of a violent incident last September at the Brazoria County Jail in Angleton, the country was shown a startling picture of life in the Texas penal system. “Crawl, motherf—er, crawl!” yelled sheriff’s deputies as they forced a prisoner to move along on his belly “like a snake.” He and others who didn’t move fast enough got a kick to the crotch or several hits with a stun gun. One prisoner screamed in pain as a German shepherd sank its teeth into his leg. Though state officials say the Brazoria case is an anomaly, it generated such publicity that it was impossible to dismiss. Even before the tape surfaced, an interim Senate committee was looking into system-wide prisoner safety, but suddenly reporters all over the country were questioning whether guard brutality is a daily reality in Texas. The answer is no, but violence does occur—and the issue of when and why it does is complicated.
To begin with, it’s important to understand that there are actually two distinct penal systems in Texas: the county jail system and the state prison system. The county jail system is made up of 323 facilities and houses 56,000 inmates. Although the twenty-person Texas Commission on Jail Standards monitors these facilities and inspects them each year, the state has little say over how they are run; rather, it is the individual county sheriffs who are in charge. The commission cannot regulate the use of force by jail officials against inmates; in fact, the county jail system has no use-of-force rules whatsoever. And if the commission suspects abuse, it has no power to force jails to comply with an investigation. As in the Brazoria County case, its only recourse is to turn the matter over to an outside authority, such as the Texas attorney general, the Texas Rangers, or the FBI. Jack Crump, the commission’s executive director, says that as a result of the Brazoria County case, he and his colleagues are taking stock of their ability to prevent incidents of abuse; they’ve created a new mechanism for prisoner complaints to be investigated, and they’re drawing up excessive-force guidelines. “We are doing a few things administratively that we hope will better sound the alarm,” Crump says.
The state prison system, by contrast, has 107 facilities and 139,000 inmates—and one of the nation’s most comprehensive methods of monitoring the use of force and investigating allegations of abuse. Just twenty years ago the Texas system was considered to be one of the most abusive in the Western world: Prisoners called building tenders were put in charge of disciplining their peers, a no-holds-barred policy that encouraged beatings in which some inmates were seriously injured or killed. But since the early eighties, as a result of a lawsuit brought by inmate David Ruiz against state prison officials, Texas cleaned up its act, getting rid of the building tenders, hiring more staff, and instituting a 62-page “Use of Force Plan.” The plan lays out what kinds of force officers can apply and when, and it mandates that all uses of force must be reported. “Minor use of force” is defined as “any physical contact in a confrontational situation to control behavior, or to enforce order, including the placement of hands on the offender in an effort to cause him or her to do anything involuntary except under escort.” If restraints or weapons or chemical agents are to be used, that constitutes a “major use of force,” in which case a guard must locate a commanding officer and videotape the event.
Over the past twelve months, the state closed 3,169 use-of-force cases, of which 174 were deemed violations. During that time, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) fired 8 officers for using excessive force or failing to document an incident properly and reprimanded, suspended, or demoted 102 others. Gary Johnson, the director of TDCJ’s Institutional Division, says such statistics suggest that the state takes abuse seriously. To minimize the use of force, he notes, TDCJ is more frequently using chemical agents like pepper spray rather than batons, and it has begun to experiment with around-the-clock video surveillance.
But while the prison system seems committed to following up on allegations of abuse, its rapid expansion has made it difficult for TDCJ to properly screen guards. Since 1992 the state has built more than forty facilities; in recent months, according to Johnson, TDCJ has been hiring four hundred guards a month. To meet the demand, Johnson says, TDCJ has had to reduce preservice training from six weeks to four and has switched from eight-hour shifts to twelve-hour shifts at some of the units. Then there is the matter of pay. The starting gross salary for a guard is only $19,200 a year, a paltry sum that tends to attract people with few other options, says Carlos Carrasco, the executive director of the Texas branch of the Correctional Employees Council, a union that represents about five thousand guards. “A lot of them are coming in thinking they need a job, so if there’s a job opening, they take it,” Carrasco says. The result is that many of the new state prison units are staffed largely by young and inexperienced guards who may be more prone to overreact in a confrontational situation. In fact, in 1996, according to TDCJ’s emergency action center, medium-security units built since 1991 reported 40 percent more major uses of force per thousand prisoners than older units.
Consider what happened three years ago at the Terrell Unit, a maximum-security facility near Livingston where many of the guards were young and had been on the job for less than a year. What began as a scuffle between a prisoner and a guard turned into a war, pitting staff against inmates. After a guard was severely beaten by a group of prisoners, vigilante officers burst into cells and attacked inmates. One prisoner was beaten to death by two guards who were later convicted of manslaughter, the first time in TDCJ history that an officer was convicted of killing an inmate. Meanwhile, since 1994 at least five officers at the Robertson Unit, a maximum-security facility near Abilene, have been charged with violating prisoners’ civil rights. According to prosecutors, guards were accused of using unnecessary force against prisoners, and a guard was said to have opened a gate to allow one prisoner to beat up another. Earlier this year three guards at Robertson were indicted on manslaughter charges for failing to get medical help, resulting in the death of a prisoner.
These are the sort of “anomalies” being picked over by the Senate committee, whose chair, John Whitmire of Houston, vows to look into all aspects of prisoner safety. He has already called hearings at which TDCJ staff and members of inmates’ families testified about the issue of guard brutality in both county jails and state prisons. Potential solutions discussed so far include tightening the criteria for hiring guards and raising salaries. Of course, with such a large penal system, any solution is sure to be costly. But since Brazoria, it seems clear that if state officials are willing to invest billions of dollars in building new facilities, they must also set aside funds to protect the prisoners who live in them.