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 problem. These seven inmates were able to gather unsupervised in the maintenance area. One of the seven wasn’t even on the maintenance crew but walked undetected from the law library in the main building to the maintenance shed.”
Martin says security audits are supposed to be conducted regularly not only by the supervisors running the unit itself but also by the regional and central command. “Good security is the product of constant vigilance. And you have to wonder whether that’s happening,” he says. “Because there were so many appalling breaches, you start wondering about the commitment of the sergeant or the lieutenant at that prison to security, as well as the commitment of the assistant warden, the warden, even the regional director of that prison.”
In truth, it’s unlikely that there is going to be another escape anytime soon. The Connally escape (and the resulting demotion of Connally’s warden) has been a wake-up call for the wardens at Texas’ 115 other state penitentiaries; they have made extra efforts to guarantee that their guards are following basic security procedures. Prison spokesmen also say that the rarity of escapes shows how effective Texas prison security really is. In 1991, when state penitentiaries held almost one third of their current population, thirteen inmates escaped. In 2000, sixteen inmates (including the Texas Seven) escaped. All the fugitives were caught.
But the question is, How long can that vigilance last? Even if there are no more escapes, what is becoming clear is that the Texas prison system is having far more trouble controlling its inmates than ever before. At the very time our public policy has been to force more prisoners to serve longer sentences, we have done next to nothing to recruit or keep enough qualified correctional officers to control them. In fact, the state now incarcerates more of its residents per capita than any other state, yet the prison system is still more than two thousand guards short. The Connally Unit, for example, was twenty officers short when the escapees bolted. With an adequate number of guards, there might have been more guards at the back gate and even a roving unit at the prison, which could have thwarted the inmates during the two-hour escape.
What’s just as disturbing is that the 24,000 guards who are working for the TDCJ are considered to have little experience. A spokesman for the union that represents state prison guards says that nearly 48 percent of the officers have less than three years of experience; 73 percent have worked less than five years. On top of that, says the union spokesman, the TDCJ loses four experienced officers for every three applicants it is able to recruit.
In many ways, it’s surprising that the prison system isn’t short by thousands more officers. Texas ranks forty-seventh in the nation in starting salaries for prison guards, at a dreadful $18,924. Furthermore, a guard’s life has become far more dangerous than ever before. TDCJ spokesman Larry Todd admits that with the tripling of the inmate population in the past decade, assaults on the staff have increased almost nine times over the same period (from 261 to 2,200). Why the increased attacks? Everyone agrees that younger prisoners who are facing longer sentences, as all of the Texas Seven did, no longer have a reason to abide by prison rules. For one thing, their chances to receive parole have decreased dramatically. In 1992, 79 percent of the inmates who went before the parole board won parole. In 1995, 86 percent of the inmates who went before the parole board were denied parole. With fewer tools to motivate an inmate to remain on his best behavior, prison guards suddenly found themselves being ignored, spat or urinated on, and sometimes attacked. “The inmates now have nothing to lose,” says Todd. “And their incentive to do what they can to get out is, of course, going to be greater.”
Granted, prison guards still have some tools for behavior management—controlling visitations, phone calls to family, and the amount of money a prisoner can spend in the commissary—and guards have been given such items as protective vests and canisters filled with chemical agents to ward off attacks. But they are still at a disadvantage, especially when young inmates grow desperate. “Despondency is growing in the prisons, and it is from that system that those seven escaped convicts came,” a Texas inmate, Steven Phillips, wrote in a letter published in the San Antonio Express-News. “No, they didn’t learn to rob and murder here. I do believe, however, they did learn something about hopelessness, and there is nothing on earth more dangerous than a hopeless man.”
But for better or worse, that’s the system we have. Surveys show that the public wants long-time incarceration with a minimal possibility of parole, even for criminals convicted of nonviolent offenses. And few politicians are willing to talk about more money for rehabilitation programs. In that case, they had better start talking about how the state can recruit more guards. There are now proposals before the Legislature to increase a guard’s starting salary to $21,744, although Governor Rick Perry’s budget ignores raises for guards in favor of building more prisons. Even if raises are approved, the TDCJ still faces a steep challenge to meet prison staffing requirements, especially after all the post-Connally escape newspaper stories detailing the brutal lives that today’s guards lead.
Steve Martin does have one suggestion. He says that inmates convicted of violent crimes who are facing long sentences need to be identified as security risks; they should never qualify for the kind of work (such as the maintenance-shop jobs six of the Texas Seven had) that allows them to be in the perimeter areas of a prison. “Our prison classification system allows a really nasty cat like George Rivas [the Texas Seven’s leader] to spend his days at the maintenance shed working under periodic supervision by guards,” Martin says. “All he had to do was stay out of trouble, and he found himself working near the perimeter fence, where he could devise his escape. If we don’t want to go through what we just went through, then a convict like Rivas needs to be under constant supervision within the main part of the prison. Otherwise we’re going to have another escape. You can count on it.”