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Texas Prison Building Corruption, Problems and Dangers

Of the prisons built in Texas over the past four years, in about a third of them the boilers don't meet the state safety standards because of installation and design mistakes, resulting in state regulators issuing at least 146 waivers of Texas' strict boiler safety laws - a record.

The state paid millions on design experts to ensure mistakes wouldn't be made in the state's $1.5 billion prison building program, but boiler defects were still found in 20 of 56 of the newest prisons.

Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice officials said the problems pose no safety threat. Yet, on August 10th, 1996, a boiler at the Hutchins State Jail exploded - blamed on a bad valve. Also in August, at the Lychner State Jail, a boiler malfunctioned. An investigation was then undertaken by TDCJ.

Martin Morrow, assistant manager of prison maintenance, who is in charge of boiler maintenance at prisons, said of the problems, "We were not asked to sit on design meetings ... We could have pointed out those things. It's a lot more expensive to be correcting these problems now than it would have been back then."

In January 1997, officials ordered safety inspections of all prison boilers. Art Mosley, deputy director of the TDCJ, said "We're not taking any chances."

The State Board of Registration for Professional Engineers, that licenses engineers, compiled a 23 page list of problems with Texas' prison construction frenzy after the TDCJ challenged the engineers board to put up or shut up about alleged problems.

Some of the problems listed were: engineers' new prison designs being changed without the engineers.' approval; prison system employees passing out business cards identifying themselves to be engineers, when they weren't; not having licensed engineers oversee construction projects; boiler and ventilation systems may have been designed or installed improperly; grease traps that may violate federal Environmental Protection Agency standards being installed by the order of unlicensed people; prisons built without the required emergency generators; sites for prison construction being selected by people other than licensed engineers; prefab concrete walls having faulty design; a prison system official instead of a licensed engineer being in charge over the design of fire protection and other safety systems at new prisons; an engineer's seal being cut from one construction drawing and taped to another, so the second drawing could be approved on a project plagued with problem in the costly renovation of a vacant Wal-Mart store being converted to office space for personnel and health service employees of the TDCJ; and, prison officials ordering construction project changes, rather than a licensed engineer doing so.

The engineers' board said there "appears to be violation of code and may be life-threatening." Mosley, who is the prison system official in charge of construction, said, 'A lot of this was due to the rapid rate of construction we were engaged in at the time."

The TDCJ signed an agreement with the engineers board to correct the problems and violations and to have all construction projects properly supervised by licensed engineers. Enforcement action, fines and criminal prosecution were headed off with the agreement.

Executive director of the engineers' board, John Speed, said that the engineers board decided that taxpayer money would be better spent to gain compliance and correct the problems than to gather evidence for possible criminal charges.

Speed said, "it was deemed that it would be much, much better to just get the problem fixed. We would rather use those resources to determine if there's been any compromise of the projects."

Then in January, Speed requested a bigger budget from the Senate Finance Committee, saying that the board's investigation of the TDCJ's construction program has been so costly that they need a bigger budget.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bill Ratliff suggested that the TDCJ pay for the engineers board investigation, rather than the taxpayers footing the bill. "If their activities have caused a bunch of additional costs for another agency, I think they should pay for it," Ratliff said.

In another TDCJ construction scandal, J.B. Cole, the former head of construction for the TDCJ was indicted by a Walker County grand jury in December, 1996, for abuse of official capacity. The charge is that Cole rewrote the job requirements so that his son would be hired with the prison system for a $30,588 a year position.

Cole, who steered the state's $1.5 billion prison building spree, is now retired from the prison system and says he is innocent of any wrongdoing. He admitted that he wrote the job requirements for that job, but said that it was moved to another division "so there wouldn't be any questions." He denied his son was the only applicant and said, "I didn't have anything to do with his hiring."

The requirements for the job, a senior inspector in telecommunications, were changed from six years of supervisory experience to three years of telephone installation experience and a trade school certification.

Cole's son, Page, didn't have the supervisory experience, but was the only applicant with the certified training, while another applicant had the six years of supervisory experience.

Through a spokesman, TDCJ executive director Wayne Scott said it is "a tragic situation for everyone concerned. But we are proud that our own internal affairs division put this information together and presented it to the proper authorities."

Palestine Herald-Press; Austin American-Statesman; The Dallas Morning Star; Tyler Morning Telegraph

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