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Texas Prison Guard Union Urges Death Row Reforms

Texas Prison Guard Union Urges Death Row Reforms

by Christopher Zoukis

In a move that surprised many in the prison reform community, the president of the local chapter of a Texas prison guards’ union wrote a letter to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) on January 20, 2014, urging officials to introduce major reforms in the state’s handling of death row prisoners.

Lance Lowry, president of Huntsville’s Local 3807 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), wrote the letter amid the TDCJ’s review of conditions at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, where Texas death row prisoners are held.

Prisoners at Polunsky are housed in solitary confinement, confined to their cells 23 hours a day. “Recreation” comes in the form of exercise one hour per day, alone in a dog-run type enclosure. Televisions are not permitted, nor are prisoners allowed to use the telephone or participate in education, work or religious programs.

While a three-tiered classification system allows some condemned prisoners a radio and occasional non-contact visits, all prisoners remain on death row until their execution or, in the rare case, release, for several decades on average.

According to Lowry, the draconian conditions at Polunsky are a “knee-jerk reaction” to a 1998 escape from death row, in which convicted murderer Martin Gurule escaped only to drown in a stream nearby. Six months later, the death row prisoners at the Ellis Unit in Huntsville were moved to Polunsky.

“This has not been a positive thing for the inmates or the staff,” Lowry said. “There has been increased aggression toward the officers.” In his letter to the TDCJ, Lowry wrote that “staff incompetency and lack of proper security equipment” were the biggest factors in the 1998 escape. As a result, “the agency ignored the root of the problem,” and in the current death row management model, “inmates have very few privileges to lose and staff become easy targets.”

The AFSCME letter called for greater privileges to be used as a management tool. Certain death row prisoners “should be housed two offenders to a cell and [given] privileges such as work assignments and allowed TV privileges by streaming over-the-air television to a computer tablet using a closed Wi-Fi network.” Lowry added, “Lack of visual or auditory stimulation results in increased psychological incidents and results in costly crisis management.”

A coalition of prisoners’ rights advocates including mental health groups, religious organizations, security experts and civil rights activists also sent a letter to TDCJ officials urging similar reforms. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) said the TDCJ’s current system of long-term solitary confinement causes suicide, depression, paranoia, psychosis and other anti-social behaviors. “Sticking with the status quo is alarming,” stated NAMI policy coordinator Greg Hansch.

TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said the agency is “currently reviewing and updating the [department’s] Death Row Plan.” As of September 9, 2015, six women and 247 men were awaiting execution in Texas.



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