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The Connally Seven - A Texas Prison Escape and its Aftermath

The John B. Connally State Prison is a 2,800-capacity maximum security facility for men. As part of Texas' $2 billion prison building frenzy of the 1990's, construction of the so-called "Michael prototype" unit was completed in 1994; the first prisoners arrived in the summer of 1995.

Located in rural Karnes County about 50 miles southeast of San Antonio, the prison brought 743 low-paying jobs to the area, including slots for about 550 prison guards. Annual starting salary for a Texas prison guard is just under $19,000; and raises are typically small and infrequent. As a result, most Texas prisons are dangerously understaffed.

It was not surprising, then, that on December 13, 2000, only 96 guards showed up to fill the 127 positions allocated for the 12-hour day shift at the Connally prison, nor was it surprising that shortly after lunch on that day, seven minimum custody prisoners took advantage of the short staffing and other flaws in the security system to liberate themselves.

During the next 6 weeks, the Connally Seven robbed a Radio Shack store near Houston, as well as a sporting goods store near Dallas where they fatally shot a policeman. They changed their appearances by growing facial hair, bought a 34-foot motor home, and took up residence in a Colorado RV park, holding themselves out as Christian missionaries. They completely confounded the legions of feckless law enforcement officials who pursued hundreds of dead-end tips in their nationwide manhunt until January 20, when Wade Holder, owner of the RV park, telephoned the FBI and said, "They're here."

Three of the escapees were arrested without incident on January 22, 2001, in Woodland Park, an idyllic alpine community in the mountains of Colorado. Joseph Garcia, 29, George Rivas, 30, and Michael Rodriguez, 38, were taken into custody on that Monday morning when they drove their Jeep Cherokee to the store to buy gasoline.

Later that day, as squads of law enforcement officers surrounded the RV park, Randy Halprin, 23, walked out of the motor home and surrendered. Larry Harper, 37, chose to remain inside the motor home and ended his life with a gunshot to his chest.

Two days later, the last two members of the Connally Seven were apprehended at a Colorado Springs motel. Patrick Murphy, 39, and Donald Newbury, 38, surrendered peacefully after being granted a brief, pre-dawn telephone interview with a local TV newscaster, Eric Singer, of KKTV.

"The [Texas criminal justice] system is as corrupt as we are. You going to do something about us, well do something about that system too," said Newbury in the interview.

On January 11, 2001, the Institutional Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) released an 83-page "Serious Incident Review." That review, made public at a press conference eleven days before the first escapees were captured, shifted most of the blame for the escape and its consequences to low-ranking guards and workers in the prison system.

Timothy Keith, formerly warden at the Connally prison, was transferred to a low-paying job in an obscure backwater of the prison system. A civilian employee was suspended for 3 weeks. On the day of the escape, he had failed to report that a group of prisoners, later determined to be the Connally Seven, were loitering unsupervised in the prison's Maintenance Department. Two prison guards, who inexplicably silenced an alarm without bothering to investigate its source or cause while the escape was in progress, were suspended for a few days.

Texas legislators, dismayed by TDCJ's slapdash whitewash of the escape and its aftermath, ordered prison administrators to bring in independent outside consultants to review the system and recommend changes.

Security Response Technologies of Middleton, Massachusetts, was retained to conduct a professional, in-depth analysis with a view to preventing a repeat performance of the Connally escape. The SRT report was released April 6, 2001. The repercussions continue to resonate throughout the Texas prison system.

The SRT report hammered TDCJ for lax security and urged prison officials to adopt more rigid standards to ensure that prisoners remain confined.

Despite the fact that the Connally prison successfully passed two security audits in 1999, "there is little doubt that the security breaches had been standard practice in the months and years leading up to the escape," the report stated.

"While these breaches were apparently overlooked by administrators of the unit and the auditors, they were not overlooked by the offenders who escaped."

The SRT report recommended that prison officials beef up security in guard towers, limit prisoners' access to tools, and carefully monitor the comings and goings of prisoners within each facility.

The SRT report specifically recommended that tower guards should be required to make regularly scheduled security calls to the central control room; that prisoners should not be allowed access to a guard tower or control room for any purpose; and that tower guards should be required to wear their side arms at all times.

A second review of Texas prison policies, also released on April 6th, focused on the prisoner classification system. Written by James Austin of George Washington University, the report faults the prison system, saying that TDCJ misclassifies prisoners by allowing those with a history of escape attempts and assaults on guards to work in areas where they have limited supervision and access to potentially dangerous tools.

TDCJ's classification system, says Austin, only considers a prisoner's behavior while he is in custody. Austin recommends that classification takes into account the type of crime committed by the prisoner as well as his previous criminal record and the length of his sentence.

Many of Austin's recommendations have already been implemented. In addition to the new job restrictions, the overall classification system is being revamped. TDCJ's minimum custody classification will change from two to three sublevels so prisoners can be better supervised based on their length of sentence, the nature of their offense, and their history of escapes and violence.

Prison officials have taken other steps to improve security in the wake of the Connally escape. Many of these are cosmetic, highvisibility actions intended to impress the media, the public, and the legislators. For example, guards are being issued stabproof vests and chemicalspray agents. Some guards are receiving specialized training in defensive tactics.

Other steps include moving prisonersthose who have long sentences or have been convicted of violent offenses, as well as those who have shown that they may be flight risksfrom dormitories to the more secure cellblock housing buildings.

Further, prisoners are no longer allowed to issue tools to other prisoners and there is more stringent control of how tools are checked out.

Prison officials are also working on a scheme to identify and better alert guards about prisoners who have taken hostages, tried to escape, or have a history of slipping out of their restraints.

While it may all look good on paper, prison demographics may render the new measures unworkable. Texas is locking up a growing population of young, violent offenders with very lengthy sentences. As the concentration of these high-risk prisoners increases, the pool of available prisoner-workers who are needed to run each prison shrinks. There may not be enough eligible prisoners to perform the "sensitive" jobs needed to ensure a prison operates smoothly.

As for the six surviving members of the Connally Seven, so far, only one has been tried for the killing of police officer Hawkins. On August 29, a Dallas jury sentenced George Rivas to death. However, under Texas' law of parties, all the remaining members of the Connally Seven could face the death penalty for the shooting death of the police officer who had the misfortune to interrupt the robbery of the suburban Dallas sporting goods store.

Sources: Associated Press , the Austin American-Statesman ,The Dallas Morning News , the Fort Worth Star-Telegram , the Houston Chronicle , personal correspondence and interviews.

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