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"Major Use of Force" Incidents on the Increase in Texas Prisons

According to statistics released by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), the number of "major use of force" incidents climb sharply from 6,071 in 2005 to 7,151 in 2013, an increase of 17%.

TDCJ officials claim that the fluctuations in the numbers are random and not tied to any single factor. A TDCJ spokesman said that a change in the way "major use of force" incidents are reported that took effect in 2012 could account for some of the increase, but refused to say how much.

Lance Lowery, state president of a union representing TDCJ employees, blames the increase on TDCJ's increasing reliance on rookie guards who may lack the skills at defusing tense situations that a veteran guard might have. He said that many veterans are opting to retire rather than continuing their employment. This has led to a shortage of guards, with over 3,000 guard vacancies at the 109 prisons operated by TDCJ in the fall of 2013.

"De-escalation skills are developed by staff through many years of experience," said Lowry who also noted that "major use of force" incidents occurred more often at larger prisons and in the hot summer months.

Most TDCJ prisons are not air conditioned and the heat stresses prisoners and staff. For instance, at the Connally Unit, "major use of force" incidents increased from 22 in February 2013 to 36 in August of that year.

The use of chemical agents against prisoners is also an area of concern, according to Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. She noted that chemical agents were used 61 times on prisoners in February 2013 because they refused to follow "strip and handcuff procedures" and 32 times because the prisoners blocked a meal tray slot or covered a cell door, but these are not dangerous or life-threatening situations that would justify the use of such weapons.

"They’re all where they won't comply with an order," said Deitch. "There's no particular indication that there's an immediate danger of any kind."


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