Texas Prison Homicides Rise Sharply in 2012, Decline in 2013
Texas officials said they were at a loss to explain an unexpected surge in prison homicides during 2012, when the number of murders rose to the highest level in more than a decade. But others pointed to understaffing, inexperienced guards and inadequate supervision of a large prison population composed of more violent offenders serving longer sentences.
In calendar year 2012, a dozen prisoners were killed throughout Texas’ sprawling prison system compared to three in 2011, five in 2010 and just one in 2009.
“There appears to be no patterns to this,” said Rick Thaler, director of the Correctional Institutions Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), who has since retired. “It’s very random.”
“It definitely jumped out at us,” TDCJ Inspector General Bruce Toney told the Associated Press. “It definitely has not been an average year.”
Toney noted the murders were not related and had occurred throughout the state’s 111-unit prison system. No one knows the reason for the increase, he said. Most of the homicides did not involve weapons other than “hands and feet kicking” and more than half resulted from fights between cellmates, which are difficult to prevent, he added.
“It’s a situation where they have some kind of disagreement and it results in a death,” Toney said. “Inside a prison cell, everything is metal so that leaves the potential for injuries if someone gets knocked down.”
According to TDCJ policy, prisoners are screened for rivalries and conflicting gang affiliations. Officials said prisoners are paired with others who have similar backgrounds, past histories and medical restrictions, and who are within nine years of each other’s age and within 40 pounds of each other’s weight. The classification system does not take race or ethnic origin into account.
“Most all of them hadn’t had any previous issues with their cellmate, at least that they’d told us about,” Thaler stated.
But family members and advocacy groups question how a prisoner could be killed so quickly that guards are not able to intervene.
“So they don’t know what’s causing all these deaths, and they can’t do anything to stop it? That’s an abominable excuse,” said Terrence Benavides, who has three relatives in prison. “It’s their job to run a safe and secure system. And three times the number of murders [over the previous year] tells me that something isn’t right.”
Some TDCJ guards have cited tougher conditions in prison – more prisoners convicted of violent crimes and serving longer sentences. They believe that creates more opportunities for fights and homicides, because many facilities are understaffed and large numbers of guards are newer hires with less experience.
“Understaffing and lack of training are two big issues right now inside the agency, and both of those can adversely affect supervision,” said Brian Olsen, executive director of the union that represents more than 6,000 Texas prison guards. “There are also issues with complacency and working in a difficult environment, where the inmates are more violent than ever.”
Lance Lowry, a 13-year veteran prison guard and president of the Huntsville union local, the largest in the state, agreed. “The supervision of the inmates is not what it once was,” he stated. “Having a turnover rate as high as TDCJ does among correctional officers means there’s more inexperience out there. And that plus short staffing and a tougher inmate population adds up.”
An internal TDCJ report reviewed by the American-Statesman revealed that at the end of October 2012, seven prisons – mostly in western and southern Texas – had staffing levels under 70%, a threshold when staffing can become an operations issue. The lowest staffing cited in the report was at the Smith Unit, where 48% of the guard positions were vacant.
However, officials said that at the same time the number of homicides increased, the number of other serious offenses fell. For example, reports of sexual assault dropped from 343 during 2011 to 265 through October 2012, cases of weapons possession fell from 1,102 to 837 during the same period and serious offender assaults declined from 1,222 to 1,028.
“A broad sweep of the indicators is that the system is operating safely and smoothly with fewer problems – and then this one number,” said TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston, referring to the spike in homicides in 2012.
“Anytime we have more than zero, we are concerned,” he added.
In 2013, the number of murders in Texas prisons dropped to four. The TDCJ’s homicide statistics do not, of course, include executions – which are typically classified by medical examiners as homicides. Texas executed 15 prisoners in 2012 and 16 in 2013.
Sources: Associated Press, www.statesman.com, www.reporternews.com
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