Investigations into Texas Jail Deaths Find Thousands of Guards Untrained, on Temporary Licenses
by Matt Clarke
An investigation by the Dallas Morning News into the Christmas Eve 2016 death of prisoner Andy Debusk at the Parker County jail revealed that not only did the guards at the privately-operated facility contribute to Debusk’s death, but several were untrained and employed under temporary licenses. The jail is one of 14 in Texas run by LaSalle Corrections, a family-owned private prison firm based in Louisiana. [See: PLN, Feb. 2013, p.1]. DeBusk’s death was one of an average 93 jail deaths a year, tallied since 2005 by the Texas Justice Initiative.
DeBusk died just 28 hours after he was booked into the jail, located about 60 miles west of Dallas. Struggling with methamphetamine addiction, the 38-year-old’s legal troubles had begun earlier in the year when he hallucinated someone was after him and sought to enter and hide in a neighbor’s house. The neighbor called police to report DeBusk was “shaking the door” to enter the house. Due to that report, he was arrested and charged with attempted burglary. He posted bond but returned to jail twice – once for forgetting to recharge his ankle monitor, then again when he tested positive for drugs. His Christmas Eve arrest was for pulling his mother’s hair during a fight earlier in December.
Surveillance video showed a disheveled-looking DeBusk arriving at and being booked into the jail before he was placed in a solitary cell. Once there he allegedly took off his clothes, yelled insults at guards and threw water around the cell. When the guards decided to move DeBusk to a more secure cell, he struggled with them. Two guards were accidentally doused with pepper spray when they tried to subdue him; one had to leave to seek medical attention. The remaining guard was joined by others who piled onto DeBusk to put him in restraints.
“They’re gonna kill me,” he screamed.
Four guards hoisted DeBusk and carried him to a new cell. They piled onto him again to remove the chains.
“I can’t breathe,” he said.
Guards ignored him until he vomited. Then a guard told another to “knee in.” The second guard drove a knee into DeBusk’s back.
“He’s turning a different color,” a third guard noted, while another said DeBusk was “out.”
“He’s fine, get the cuffs,” replied a fifth guard.
DeBusk was placed alone in a cell, unmoving and making faint gasping noises. Seven minutes later the guards called 911, but DeBusk was already dead. The medical examiner listed his cause of death as “undetermined,” but noted that pepper spray and “prolonged periods of prone restraint with compression of his torso” were contributing factors.
Some of the jail guards involved in the incident had no training, though Texas law requires 120 hours of training, 72 of which can be completed online with a passing score on a final exam. The untrained guards had been employed by LaSalle using a temporary license, which is valid for one year and intended to allow employment while the guard undergoes required training. Texas issues 4,000 to 5,000 temporary licenses per year.
Ty Ashley, then 21, was one of the guards who piled on DeBusk the night he died at the Parker County jail. Hired just two months earlier, Ashley had received no state training. When the Dallas Morning News investigated in November 2018, it found that 24 of the jail’s 77 guards were working on temporary licenses and LaSalle had hired over 370 temporary-licensed jailers since 2017 to work at the jails it operates around the state.
Two LaSalle-run facilities, the Fannin County jail and McLennan County’s Jack Harwell Detention Center, were listed as out-of-compliance with state jail standards. Not long after the company took over management of the Fannin County jail, a 67-year-old prisoner with several life-threatening medical issues named Paul Plecker died in November 2018. Former LaSalle guard Javier Marroquin said at the time that he had worked at the facility for just five months, all under a temporary license, without receiving any training to recognize symptoms of medical distress.
The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement said that 3,200 – 14 percent – of some 23,000 jailers in the state are working on temporary licenses. However, an investigation by Dallas television station WFAA reported over half the guards in at least six Texas county jails had temporary licenses. Among the jails operated by LaSalle, 29 percent of the guards at the Bowie County jail had temporary licenses, as did 42 percent at the Johnson County jail, 25 percent in Fannin County and 24 percent at the Parker County jail.
“We wouldn’t put our police officers on the street without training,” remarked corrections expert Lance Lowery. “We shouldn’t be putting the jailers in the same situation. We’re endangering people’s lives.”
Kim Vickers, executive director of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, said some jails never train the guards they hire on temporary licenses.
“If they’re simply trying to fill [the open positions with] warm bodies and they’re trying to just keep business running, the propensity is there to hire somebody, keep them for a year and terminate them and hire somebody else and keep a revolving door,” she stated.
There may also be an economic motive, as some jails pay guards with temporary licenses significantly less than fully licensed jailers. Yet some guards with temporary licenses are promoted to supervisory positions.
When Michael Sabbie died after being pepper sprayed at the LaSalle-run Bowie County jail in 2015, the supervisor left in charge of the facility had been promoted to the rank of sergeant seven months earlier while still holding a temporary license. Only after his promotion did he attend state-mandated training and pass the licensing test. Sabbie had asthma and heart problems, and repeatedly told jailers he could not breathe when they pepper-sprayed him. But no one checked on him for hours; when they did, he was dead on the floor of his cell. [See: PLN, Aug. 2019, p.25; Aug. 2018, p.24].
When state Rep. Garnet Coleman, chairman of the Texas House Committee on County Affairs, asked about the practice of promoting jailers with temporary licenses during a committee hearing, Rodney Cooper, LaSalle’s chief executive in Texas, reacted testily.
“What if I had to go without sergeants? Is that what you want to see?” said Cooper. “Just don’t have sergeants. Then we would be answering questions from you, ‘Why don’t you have sergeants in place?’”
“Essentially, we have minimally trained jailers supervising minimally trained jailers,” Rep. Coleman countered.
“The one thing they could never explain away is why they had such a high percentage of untrained jailers,” state Rep. Bill Zedler said after the hearing. “There needs to be a cap on the number of untrained individuals in each facility.”
He proposed that the cap be set at 10 percent, that temporary licenses be limited to 180 days, and guards with temporary licenses be required to work under the direct supervision of trained and licensed jailers. During hearings on the proposed law, Coleman heard testimony from the mothers of two prisoners who died in custody, who had been featured in the WFAA investigation. He then subpoenaed LaSalle executives to appear, telling them he was “angry about this.”
“I don’t like listening to mamas talk about their dead sons,” he added.
Zedler and Coleman co-sponsored a bill during the 2019 state legislative session that would have limited a temporary jailer license to 90 days, but the measure didn’t pass after it was opposed by several sheriffs.
“Sometimes, it takes a year [to get a newly hired guard licensed],” said Jackson County Sheriff A.J. Lauderback.
Rural counties like his, with a population of less than 15,000, are “hard-pressed” to hold a single training class each year, noted Lauderback, who usually hires guards in January and enrolls them in training class during the summer.
“County jails are in the unique situation where they don’t control their own funding and salaries,” he added.
As a compromise, legislators agreed to ban unlicensed guards from supervisory positions and require county sheriffs to enroll them in certification classes within 90 days of hiring, while still allowing a full year to complete their training.
According to Rep. Coleman, “poor and incomplete” staff training is a factor contributing to in-custody deaths, of which there were 53 in Texas during the first half of 2019.
Sources: dallasnews.com, texasstandard.org, wfaa.com, palestineherald.com