The Prison Justice League (PJL), a group advocating prison reform in Texas, released a report entitled Cruel & Unusual Punishment: Excessive Use of Force at the Estelle Unit. The report found that blind, deaf, elderly and disabled prisoners were routinely physically and sexually abused at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) prison. Guards retaliated against prisoners who complained about abuse. Although aware of the abuse, the prison administration did nothing to prevent it or discipline the guards who abused prisoners.
The Estelle Unit houses 1,300 men in Huntsville, Texas, home to six other state prisons and the TDCJ headquarters. All told, TDCJ employs around 20% (7,000) of Huntsville's residents. Prisoners account for close to half of the city's population.
The Estelle Unit includes a physically separate High Security Unit. It was the first of an archipelago of TDCJ "Supermax" prisons, ironically housing both prisoners deemed too violent for general population and those considered too vulnerable such that they require protective custody.
The main unit includes a regional prison hospital and houses physically challenged prisoners—including those who are visually impaired—and a geriatric unit. About a third of the general population is more than 50 years old. Hundreds of Estelle prisoners are blind, deaf, mobility impaired or a combination of the three. Thus, Estelle has one of the most fragile and vulnerable general populations of any Texas prison.
According to the report, Estelle prisoners have been experiencing excessive force and violence for years. In 1999, a lawsuit filed by a prisoner with a history of mental illness who had been brutally assaulted by four Estelle guards resulted in many other prisoners coming forth with their own stories of abuse at the hands of Estelle guards.
In 2007, Estelle prisoner Larry Cox was fatally beaten by several high-ranking guards. After the beating, which included slamming a handcuffed Cox's head into a steel bunk and the floor, guards left Cox unable to stand, lying on the floor of his cell for two days before a different guard asked a nurse from another prison to examine him. Transported to the prison hospital, he succumbed to his injuries—which included two broken vertebrae and a damaged spinal cord—ten days later.
PJL surveyed 114 of its members incarcerated at the Estelle Unit (respondents). It found that Estelle’s guards "are assaulting prisoners at alarming rates. While all prisoners are susceptible to mistreatment from correctional officers, the rate at which disabled prisoners are targeted for excessive force is disturbing." PJL also concluded that the prison administration at Estelle is aware of the abuse of prisoners but has failed to act to prevent it or discipline the guards who abuse prisoners. As a result of its findings, PJL filed a legal complaint against TDCJ on behalf of the respondents seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.
The report showed 65% of respondents had been assaulted by Estelle guards and the other 35% had all witnessed guards assaulting other prisoners. 46% of those who reported having been assaulted by an Estelle guard were blind, deaf or otherwise physically impaired. 76% of those who were assaulted did not file a grievance over the assault. 69% of them said it was because they feared retaliation from staff. The other 31% said they didn't think it would help.
41.5% of the assaulted prisoners said they received no medical care following the assault. 83% of those receiving medical care had to wait hours to days before they were seen by medical personnel.
90% of respondents witnessed a staff assault against a blind, deaf or elderly prisoner. 76% said they felt unsafe in the hallways. 100% said they felt unsafe at Estelle. 15% reported sexual victimization by staff or other prisoners, the highest rate for any prison in the country. The nationwide average is 4.5%.
"There are several factors contributing to the proliferation of excessive use of force at Estelle. First, the administrative mechanisms available to prisoners to seek relief are largely ineffective. Second, the correctional staff regularly retaliate against prisoners, often violently, who pursue recourse through the Offender Grievance System. Third, leadership at Estelle is aware that officers engage in excessive use of force, but do nothing to stop the assaults from taking place and do not reprimand bad actors. Finally, there is no meaningful, independent oversight to ensure policies are being followed, maintain transparency within the organization, and hold TDCJ accountable."
Lance Lowry, who heads the largest of the unions for TDCJ guards, attributes the high use of force rates to poor training, weak oversight, understaffing and antiquated infrastructure at Estelle.
"Texas requires correctional to undergo 200 hours of training, while states such as California and Michigan have over 600 hours of training," said Lowry. "The union is pushing for Texas to increase the required training of correctional officers and set correctional officer licensing standards."
The report also recommends additional guard training and makes additional recommendations to correct the problem of prisoner abuse at Estelle.
Sources: www.texastribune.org; Cruel & Unusual Punishment: Excessive Use of Force at the Estelle Unit, PJL 2015; www.prisonjusticeleague.org
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