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Another Texas Prison System Lockdown-Politics as Usual?

by Matthew T. Clarke

For the second time in two years, the entire Texas prison system was locked down in a delayed response to isolated incidents in two Texas prisons, once again raising the specter of political motivation for the lockdown. The previous lockdown was reported in the May 1999 issue of PLN.

This year's lockdown began on March 16, 2000. According to TDCJ spokesmen, the incident which triggered the lockdown was the murder of a Hispanic prisoner by another Hispanic prisoner at the Coffield Unit which occurred two days before the lockdown. TDCJ's official line was that the prisoner who was killed was a member of a prison gang known as the Texas Syndicate and the prisoner who killed him was a suspected member of another prison gang known as the Pistoleros and the lockdown was necessary to remove any weapons from the prison system and prevent an all out gang war between the two prison gangs. However, a prison system spokesman later admitted that they "still aren't certain whether the killing was a gang-oriented hit or a personal spat" and they don't even know if the prisoner who is charged with the murder really is a gang member.

It is generally accepted as fact that the systemwide lockdown and shakedown had been planned more than a week in advance of the killing. Therefore, the killing is probably more of a convenient excuse than a reason for the lockdown.

As was the case in 1999, the lockdown came in the wake of scathing criticism of Texas Governor and Republican Presidential Candidate George W. Bush and the prison administration in the mainstream media following highly-publicized incidents on Death Row. This year's criticism was sparked by a series of incidents which included: (1) a prisoner spitting out a handcuff key as he was being executed at the Terrell Unit the week before the lockdown; (2) the same prisoner who spit out a handcuff key (who had also been among the prisoners who attempted to escape from Death Row in November 1998) along with another Death Row prisoner taking a Death Row guard hostage at the Terrell one month before the lockdown; (3) the murder of prison guard Daniel Nagel at the McConnell Unit in December, 1999; and (4) an unrelated disturbance in the administrative segregation section of the McConnell Unit in which one prisoner freed 80 other segregation prisoner who caused extensive damage to the segregation cell block.

These are the only two systemwide lock downs of the Texas prison system in well over a decade. Both came as news media began to question whether the prison system was "out of control". Both were ineffective and inappropriately delayed responses to isolated incidents by a few prisoners in a couple of prisons. Both were probably motivated by a desire of Governor Bush and the prison administration to appear to being "doing something--anything" about the media's fictional "out-of-control" prisons.

Adding to the proof of political motivation behind the two systemwide lockdowns are the serious incidents which have occurred in TDCJ-lD and did not result in an immediate lockdown, These include the following:

May 6, 2000, a prisoner armed with sharpened sheet metal, took two female medical workers hostage in the medical department at Styles Unit in Beaumont, demanded $100, cigarettes, and improved conditions of confinement. He wounded an assistant warden, a captain and another guard before being overpowered by guards when they stormed the area.
April 25, 2000, one prisoner was killed and 31 injured when 300 prisoners armed with gardening tools riot at the Smith Unit outside Lamesa.
April 13, 2000, a prisoner at William P. Clements Unit in Amarillo held a guard hostage for seven hours before surrendering.
Feb, 21, 2000, two death row prisoners, armed with sharpened pieces of metal, took a guard hostage at the Terrell Unit in Livingston and held her hostage for 13 hours before surrendering.
Jan. 15, 2000, a Huntsville guard was stabbed with a pencil which must be surgically removed.
December 1999, a prisoner at McConnell Unit in Beeville injured a guard and freed 80 prisoners who rioted in the administrative segregation cellblock, causing extensive damage.
December 1999, a guard was killed by a prisoner at McConnell Unit.
April 1999, a nurse was held nine hours by two prisoners armed with homemade knives at the Monfort Unit in Lubbock after overpowered guards.
April 1999, 13 prisoners were stabbed and 4 others taken to a hospital in Wichita Falls after a riot involving nearly 90 prisoners at Allred Unit
November 27, 1998, six Death Row prisoners attempted to escape and made it as far as the outer prison fence at the Ellis Unit in Huntsville. One escaped the perimeter, but is later found drowned.
August 1998, a guard was held about an hour by a prisoner with handgun at Holiday Unit in Huntsville.
June 1997, a prisoner took three hostages at Canton psychiatric facility. He was caught later that day while holding 15-year old boy hostage.
February 1996, a naked prisoner held a guard hostage for ten hours at a Palestine prison.
March 1995, a riot involving 400 to 500 prisoners broke out at a Dilley prison. Four prisoners were hospitalized.
All of the above-listed events were serious incidents. Most were much more serious than the official reason for the 1998 systemwide lockdown--a guard being raped at the Robertson Unit in Abilene--and many were more serious than the official reason for the 1999 lockdown--a prisoner killing another prisoner at the Coffield Unit. This indicates alterior motivation for the lockdowns. In seeking the actual motivation for two similar events when the official reason is implausible, one should ask what the two events have in common. In this case it is: (1) Texas Governor George W. Bush was openly running for President; and (2) the national televised media had picked up on local Texas media stories reporting Texas prisons as "out-of-control" and stating that the Texas prison system was not being competently run. Within ten days of the national media coverage, the prisons were locked down. In both cases, the official reason for the lockdown seems like an excuse. One can imagine the Bush campaign, in light of the bad national publicity, meeting and deciding "the next time something happens in a Texas prison, lock 'em down. That way it will look like we're doing something. That way the voters will know we're in control."

The political motivation theory is also supported by the results of the lockdowns. The prison system was locked down to search for weapons and other contraband; however, the search revealed little of either. According to a prison system spokesman, the search netted "just routine and heavily nuisance contraband--overage of necessities, like too many (necessities, such as) more pairs of undies than (the prisoner) is supposed to have." In the entire 145,000-man, 116-unit prison system, only one weapon was found.

The circumstantial evidence strongly suggests an improper political motivation behind the systemwide lockdown. Neither the official reason for the lockdown nor the results justify closing the entire prison system for weeks. To Texas prisoners, there is no mystery to why they were locked down. When national television network news began talking about Ponchai Wilkerson spitting out a handcuff key in defiance while being executed and hyperbolated on the incompetent way the "out-of-control" Texas prison system was being run, all knew an ill wind was blowing their way. A governor who is a presidential candidate can hardly afford national publicity about the incompetence in his largest state department. Something, anything, had to be done--even if it made no sense and produced no positive result. One has to wonder what kind of national leader Bush would make if he is willing to distract the public at the expense of helpless people under his control. One shudder to think what might happen is an elected Bush determines a war is necessary to distract the public. We might have another storm in the desert.

Since the lockdown began, Robert Lynn Pruett has been charged with the murder of guard Daniel Nagel. It has also been announced that the morbidly obese guard did not die by bleeding to death through multiple stab wounds--as initially claimed by the prison system--but rather died of a heart attack after receiving two superficial stab wounds to the neck.

Texas Governor and Republican Presidential Candidate George Bush is not the only person using the prison lock down for personal gain. The Texas guards' union has used the incident to help push through demands for a pay rise. Texas guards are among the lowest paid in the nation, a fact which recently led to chronic understaffing and contributed to the incidents which sparked the lock down according to guards' union spokesmen. The governor and various state legislators have promised to take up the issue of a pay raise for the guards when the Texas Legislature reconvenes in 2001. The prison system has promised to use funds from the operational budget to effect a pay raise as early as September of this year.

The systemwide lockdown was reduced to "warden's discretion" on March 23rd. Most units remained locked down at least part of the week of March 26th through April 1st, some were still locked down four weeks later.

In truth, the Texas prisons are not "out-of-control." Over the past decade, Texas engaged in a prison building spree, expanding the system fourfold. Now, with more than 145,000 prisoners in the system and many more up in the county jails awaiting transfer to the prisons, the Texas media and public seem unwilling to face the fact that, when you incarcerate more than an eighth of a million people--many with long sentences and little hope of parole--in understaffed prisons, you invite problems. The wonder is that this powder keg of a prison system, paid for by the taxes of the citizens of Texas, loaded by the Legislature's harsh new sentencing laws, and lit by TDCJ's chronic staffing shortage and lack of professionalism, hasn't yet exploded.

Sources: Houston Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, San Antonio Express-News

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