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Allegations of Contraband Smuggling, Sex and Corruption at Texas Prison

Allegations of Contraband Smuggling, Sex and Corruption at Texas Prison

by Matt Clarke

The Inspector General’s office of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has been investigating numerous cases of corruption at the 1,555-bed Terrell Unit near Rosharon, Texas. The allegations include sex between prisoners and guards, as well as the smuggling of tobacco, drugs and cell phones. One Terrell Unit guard faces felony charges; another has resigned, a captain was fired, and the warden has been removed.

The allegations came to light after several guards who were not involved in the corruption contacted a Houston television station, Channel 2 KPRC. The guards reported the illicit sex, funneling of contraband into the prison, and cash payments from prisoners to “allow all sorts of wrongdoings.”

When the misconduct was reported to the prison administration, it was ignored and retaliation ensued. The guards who blew the whistle on the corruption alleged that prison administrators covered up the illegal acts and allowed organized criminal activity to persist. Channel 2 conducted an independent investigation and began a series of reports on the Terrell Unit that aired in early May 2008.

On April 23, 2008, former Terrell Unit guard Derrick Rice, 34, was indicted for smuggling tobacco into the prison, a felony in Texas. Accused of accepting money in exchange for tobacco deliveries between May 2006 and June 2007, Rice was freed on $35,000 bond after being charged with seven counts of bribery.

Terri Holder, who prosecutes prison crimes in Brazoria County, said the Rice case might be “the tip of the iceberg.” She expects to prosecute additional cases resulting from the Inspector General’s investigation.

“We were giving information to the office of the Inspector General and one thing led to another,” said Holder. “They brought in a task force to see what was going on and, based on what information we have, it sounds like there could be more going on out there – more guards involved as far as illegal substances go.”

“We have 15 to 20 investigators in a support role to conduct interviews and continue the investigation,” stated John Moriarty, TDCJ’s Inspector General. “We have 10 to 15 cases open down there right now.”

On May 7, 2008, a drug dog alerted on a Terrell guard’s vehicle. Drug residue was discovered and the guard “elected to resign” after a search of his residence uncovered numerous cases of Bugler tobacco, a brand commonly used in the illicit Texas prison tobacco trade. Moriarty refused to release the guard’s name or state whether charges would be filed.

A captain at the Terrell Unit, 17-year TDCJ veteran Vonda Rafter, was fired following allegations that she had assigned a gang-affiliated prisoner to a work position that was against TDCJ policy. She also reportedly retaliated against the prison guards who reported corruption at the facility, filing false disciplinary reports against them. Rafter is appealing her dismissal.

Terrell Unit Warden Anthony Collins was removed in May 2008, pending reassignment to another position. While he was not accused of misconduct, he reportedly took no action when informed about corruption among Terrell employees.

Spurred by such incidents, state Senator John Whitmire, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, called for hearings into misconduct among prison staff.

“We’ve got some systemic problems and this might be the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “It concerns me. ... There’s no doubt the warden and other internal people were involved. If you have complaints by guards or employees and they fall on deaf ears, we’ve got a real security breach.”

“Related specifically to the Terrell Unit, the agency has taken seriously allegations of retaliation, discrimination and criminal wrongdoing at the facility,” stated TDCJ spokeswoman Michelle Lyons. Apparently, however, someone didn’t get that memo.

An unusual incident occurred as a television news crew entered the 16,362-acre prison farm that the Terrell Unit shares with the Ramsey and Stringfellow Units at about 9:00 p.m. on May 14, 2008. The visit to the Terrell Unit had been cleared in advance by TDCJ officials. As the news crew followed other vehicles on a public highway, they noticed two men speaking on cell phones near the unmanned and open highway gate that denoted the beginning of prison property. The men jumped in a car, passed the news van at an estimated 80 miles per hour, stopped, and maneuvered to block both lanes of the highway. The men then hurried a young girl and boy out of the car. One man approached the stopped news van.

The man repeatedly stated, “I’m the warden, I’m the warden.” He refused to provide his name and said, “I was trying to stop you but you almost ran over me.” He insisted on this even after reporter Stephen Dean told him that they had been taping since before entering the prison property and had the entire incident on videotape. The man then told the news crew they could not drive on the public highway.

The television station aired footage of the incident which clearly showed that the man, identified as Ramsey Unit senior warden Kenneth Negbenebor, did not approach or attempt to stop the news van at the highway gate. Dean said Brazoria County prosecutors were reviewing the video to see if criminal charges should be filed against TDCJ Lt. Reginald J. Gilbert, who was driving the car, for endangering his children who were passengers in the vehicle.

According to a written statement issued by the TDCJ, “Our goal was to set up a staging area where Mr. Dean could safely conduct his report – it was never the intention that an officer would use his vehicle to block the road to the facility. This was not agency-sanctioned behavior, nor was it requested – this officer was acting on his own, albeit believing he was helping a unit warden.” The TDCJ said the incident had been referred to the Inspector General’s office.

When prison officials go to such lengths to stop the media from even getting close to facilities where questionable conduct is taking place, one can only imagine the real scope of the problem. Nor is the corruption at Terrell isolated. The Inspector General’s office is investigating 46 cases of staff misconduct at the Clemens Unit, 31 at Coffield and 25 at the Connelly Unit.

TDCJ officials were called to testify before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on June 4, 2008 regarding corruption among the ranks of prison staff. “It’s amazing to me that we even have to have this damn conversation,” observed Senator Whitmire. TDCJ executive director Brad Livingston blamed staff shortages and low pay for a lack of routine searches of prison employees to prevent contraband from entering state prisons. One TDCJ guard, Ray Stewart, testified that 8 to 10 percent of prison staff would turn around and leave if they knew they would be subjected to a thorough search.

It should be noted that when prison officials are questioned about contraband they routinely blame prison visitors, not their own staff. The fact that the TDCJ is at least acknowledging internal corruption is a welcome sign – assuming the department actually does something about it.

Sources: The Brazosport Facts,,Houston Chronicle

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