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Texas Prison Officials Demoted, Fired after Disciplinary Quota System and Planted Contraband Exposed

In April 2018, prisoners at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s (TDCJ) Ramsey Unit in Rosharon smuggled out of the facility and into the hands of the Houston Chronicle records that proved the existence of a quota system for disciplinary charges, as well as threats against guards who failed to meet the quota requirements.

Whether called a “case,” “ticket” or “write-up,” disciplinary charges are a feature of life in all prisons, and Texas is no exception. But the TDCJ has always denied there is a “quota” for disciplinary cases that guards are incentivized to issue – an assertion that was hard to disprove until evidence surfaced.

An investigation by the Chronicle uncovered an email from Captain Reginald Gilbert dated March 9, 2018, in which he announced the prison’s sergeants would be required to turn in two disciplinary cases per day from every guard on their shift.

“Two each day is my requirement,” Gilbert wrote. “Remember this is to be done each workday without exception.”

The email also threatened disciplinary action against guards who failed to satisfy the quota. Gilbert specified that the disciplinary charges should be for “Level 2 Code 35 ‘Unauthorized Storage of Property.’” A reply from Major Juan Jackson explained that these instructions would “help greatly in fighting a gig.” According to former TDCJ guard union president Lance Lowry, “gig” is a slang term for an audit.

Gilbert halved the quota in April 2018, lessening the disciplinary case load that shift lieutenants had to deal with. But he warned them to “make sure they [charging officers] adhere to this or my requirement will go back up.”

The Chronicle received copies of the emails on April 21, 2018 and sent an information request to Gilbert, who denied there was any quota system and claimed his comments had been “taken out of context.”

Four days later, Warden Virgil McMullen sent an email to senior staff, stating there would not be any disciplinary quotas at the Ramsey Unit.

At the time, 365 guards were assigned to the 1,800-bed prison, which is designated for education programs and older prisoners. Gilbert’s email resulted in hundreds of disciplinary cases being written each day during the 45-day time span between his emails regarding the quotas.

As a result of the media attention regarding the quota system for disciplinary charges, Gilbert was demoted two ranks and transferred to the Darrington Unit – a maximum-security facility. Major Jackson initially planned to retire rather than face a similar demotion, but eventually accepted the rank of lieutenant and a transfer to a hospital unit near Galveston.

“There is not and never will be any agency policy that sanctions the use of quotas of any kind,” said TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel. “This incident is the result of the action of one unit captain which was quickly discovered and corrected by the unit warden.”

He added that any disciplinary cases at the Ramsey Unit initiated under Gilbert’s quota system would be rescinded, and Warden McMullen was demoted and transferred to the Johnston Unit in June 2018.

Jennifer Ershabek, with the Texas Inmate Families Association, contended that this was not an isolated incident at a single facility, and improper disciplinary charges are a problem throughout the TDCJ.

“One of the biggest complaints we have from family members is that an officer has written a bogus case and there’s no way for people to fight that because it becomes a he-said/he-said type of situation, and an inmate has no recourse,” Ershabek said.

She added that bogus cases were a factor in a recent 10-day hunger strike by prisoners at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville.

As the TDCJ’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigated the Ramsey Unit disciplinary cases, it uncovered similar short-lived quotas at three other state prisons that resulted in employee demotions, Desel said.

At the Lychner State Jail in Harris County, a quota system initiated by a captain, who was later fired, ended so quickly that it resulted in just one disciplinary case, which has since been dismissed.

At the McConnell Unit in Bee County, 293 disciplinary cases were thrown out and another 83 halted, though officials are still uncertain how a quota system at the facility started. A major was demoted.

And at the Travis County State Jail in Austin, 91 disciplinary cases were rescinded. An assistant warden, a captain and a sergeant were all demoted and transferred.

Including 180 quota-related disciplinary charges at the Ramsey Unit, a total of more than 600 charges were tossed by the OIG as of August 2018.

The chairman of the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee, John Whitmire, stated, “Every time I think I’ve seen everything, I see this. We don’t condone speeding ticket quotas, why would we have quotas in prison? It’s nuts.”

“This is a systemic error and it deserves thorough investigation both internally and an external monitor to figure out why it took a Houston Chronicle investigation and a leaked email to come to light,” agreed Elizabeth Henneke, executive director of the Lone Star Justice Alliance. “So I would call on the state to examine its own procedures.”

In another disciplinary-related incident, on May 25, 2018 the TDCJ received a complaint from the mother of a Ramsey Unit prisoner who claimed his disciplinary charge was based on evidence – two screwdrivers in his cell – that had been planted by Major Jackson. The OIG soon determined she was probably correct. Jackson was walked off his shift at the Galveston hospital unit and subsequently resigned.

By June 4, 2018, TDCJ spokesman Desel said four other employees at the Ramsey Unit had been fired: Lt. James Thomas, Sgt. Marcos Gallegos, Sgt. Darryll Winston and guard George Wolfe.

“This appears to be an isolated incident that started with that major,” said Desel, referring to Jackson. “All parties involved including that major did not show integrity and did not uphold what is one of this agency’s core values.”

Erschabek said the news reports confirmed what prisoners’ families had long suspected.

“We’ve been claiming in the past that family members are being set up with these cases, but it’s been so hard to prove – and we finally have the proof,” she remarked. “I am just so thankful that our voices finally are being heard. We look forward to working with TDCJ to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future.”

“Cases are going to be presented to the special prosecutor’s office,” Desel said, referring to “any and all” disciplinary charges involving the five guards who were fired for planting evidence. “If there is a determination that there’s violation of the law, it’s our intent to see prosecution to the fullest extent of the law for those involved.”

James White, who chairs the Texas House Criminal Justice Committee, added, “If you’re doing bogus things, then you’re probably missing a real security lapse somewhere. I would say we should not be doing that.”

“We must have zero tolerance for manufactured charges,” agreed Senator Whitmire. “My fear is that this is not an isolated instance.”

Indeed, it was not. In August 2018, the Houston Chronicle reported that Texas prison officials were investigating allegations that guards had planted drill bits in a prisoner’s cell at the Ramsey Unit.

“They said it wasn’t personal, just doing what they were told to do,” prisoner Johnny Reyes said about the guards. “The whole unit knew what happened to me, but no one spoke up for fear of losing their job or being set up as well.”

The OIG is investigating the latest contraband-planting claims.

“There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about the mission of TDCJ if these types of actions keep happening,” noted Doug Smith with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “These actions suggest that there are people in positions of power who simply do not understand that role.” 

Sources: Houston Chronicle, KWTX-TV, www.expressnews.com, interviews with TDCJ staff