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Record Number of Texas Prison Guards Arrested

by Matthew T. Clarke

It has often been said that it?s hard to tell the cops from the crooks. In Texas this may be true for prison guards as well. In April 2006, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) released information indicating that record numbers of guards have been arrested in recent years.

The statistical data was obtained following a public records request by the Austin American-Statesman. Although the data did not indicate how many of the arrests were for felonies, some were for crimes as serious as capital murder of a child, murder, negligent homicide, arson, theft, bank robbery, promotion of child pornography, indecent exposure, impersonating a police officer, smuggling illegal aliens and possession of illegal drugs.

Lesser offenses included public intoxication, floating hot checks, bigamy, passing counterfeit money and interfering with a 911 call.

Notably missing from the information released by the TDCJ was the high-profile July 2004 arrest of Salvador ?Sammy? Buentello, Chairman of the State Classification Committee and assistant director of TDCJ?s Security Threat Group Management office, on multiple felony sexual assault charges. [PLN, June 2005]. Buentello pleaded guilty on March 31, 2006 to five Class A misdemeanors and one felony; he received five years probation and was ordered to pay a total of $7,000 in fines. As part of the plea agreement he was not required to register as a sex offender.
Since the TDCJ?s arrest data is partly based on self-reporting by employees, it is impossible to determine how many other arrests of prison staff members may have been missed.

Even without the potentially omitted arrests, the statistics are daunting: between 700 and 840 of TDCJ?s approximately 38,600 employees have been arrested each year since 2003. There were 781 arrests in 2003, 761 in 2005, and a record 839 arrests of prison staff and contract employees in 2006 according to TDCJ Public Information Officer Jason Clark.

How does TDCJ?s record stack up against that of other states? New York Department of Corrections (NYDOC) spokesperson Linda Foglia said, ?We probably had three or four dozen [arrests] last year.? NYDOC has 32,000 employees in 69 prisons and is the nation?s third-largest prison system. Florida has 26,700 prison employees and 297 were arrested in 2005. Thus, Florida?s annual prison employee arrest rate was about 1 out of 90, compared with 1 out of 51 for TDCJ for the same year. The TDCJ arrest rate rose to about 1 out of 46 employees in 2006.

Excuses abound as to why so many TDCJ employees are being arrested, chief among them grumbling about low wages. Admittedly, Texas has one of the nation?s lowest starting salaries for rookie prison guards, at $22,000 a year. These meager wages contribute to a staff turnover rate of about 500 prison employees a month.

?Maybe it?s bad luck, and maybe it?s because we pay too little. Because we?re 2,500 correction officers short all the time, I guess we can?t be too choosy about who we hire,? said Texas state senator and chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee John Whitmire. ?Maybe the problem is where we built all these [rural] prisons. Maybe there isn?t anything to do out there but get in trouble.?

But Kathy Walt, press secretary for Texas governor Rick Perry, observed that if low pay were a cause of and excuse for crime, ?there?d be a lot of reporters with arrest records.? State Rep. Jerry Madden, head of the House Corrections Committee, agreed, stating, ?Some of the problems they?re having with arrests is not low pay. Some of the people who are being arrested are longtime employees.?

Likewise, if the rural location of some Texas prisons were a legitimate explanation for criminal behavior, we would expect to see a large number of farmers with arrest records. Instead, the cause of the high arrest rate among guards is more likely due to a poor screening system.

In March 2001, TDCJ hired James Lee Roesch as a prison guard and sent him to the training academy. Roesch had passed all of the background checks designed to root out problems among potential guards. However, during his academy training, gang-enforcement guard Irma Fernandez noticed that Roesch seemed to know a lot about the Aryan Brotherhood.
Her suspicions prompted further investigation and it turned out that Roesch was, in fact, the national Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
In his role as the leader of the white supremacy group Roesch had been the subject of much publicity, including headlines in nationally-circulated magazines. He also had two misdemeanor arrests from Ohio.

In one magazine, Roesch admitted having placed ?A Ku Klux Klansman Was Here? sticker on the grave of James Byrd, a black man who had been dragged to death behind a pickup truck by three white supremacists, two of whom were housed on Death Row at the Livingston Unit, the prison where Roesch had asked to work.

If the TDCJ didn?t check into Roesch?s past criminal record and his nationally-known white supremacist affiliations, what less-obvious information might it have missed concerning other prison guards? Does TDCJ ? which only does background checks through the Texas Department of Public Safety ? even have a method to verify the backgrounds of the many foreign nationals, mostly Nigerians, it hires as guards? Obviously the background check process could stand some improvement.

Also, the standards for hiring Texas prison guards are lower than those required for hiring police officers. Whereas persons convicted of felonies are prohibited from working as Texas prison guards, people with misdemeanor convictions are not barred from prison employment. However, persons convicted of Class A misdemeanors may not become police officers and persons convicted of Class B Misdemeanors must wait five years before becoming eligible for hire as police officers. Additionally, in February 2005, TDCJ dropped all physical agility requirements for prison guards because too many applicants were failing the tests.

With low standards, low pay and low morale evidenced by a high turnover rate, it?s a wonder that more Texas prison guards haven?t been arrested. This sentiment was expressed by Senator Whitmire, who remarked, ?I think the arrests may be just part of the problem.? It would also seem to confirm that there indeed a causal connection between poverty and crime.

Source: Austin American-Statesman

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