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Does Increased Guard Violence Mean Texas Prisoners Are at Greater Risk?

There has been no corresponding spike in serious prisoner-on-staff assaults, which hovered between 72 and 108 per year during the decade. In only two years did the number top 100.

A TDCJ spokesman tried to tie the increased staff use of force to an increase in the number of violent and mentally ill prisoners. But the system’s statistics show an increase of only 4 percent in the number of violent prisoners incarcerated in TDCJ between 2009 and 2019. 

What has increased is the number of guards being criminally prosecuted for assaulting — or even murdering — prisoners. Such criminal prosecutions have become more common, with 19 TDCJ guards sentenced for using excessive force against prisoners since 2015. None of the cases involved a death and few in jail time, with most requiring a combination of probation, fines, or community service? But they represent a sea change from the days when guards could prevail in court by invoking the defense that the prisoner deserved the beating. 

Three TDCJ guards have recently been charged in the killing of three prisoners, one each in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Only two were indicted – on charges of assault – and one has already been tried and acquitted.

Greg Ryan, 58, was three months from completing a sentence for drunkenly spitting on a Dallas police officer when, in September 2018, he allegedly spit on guard D’Andre Glasper. A supervisor ordered Glasper to stay away from Ryan after the spitting incident, but a few hours later Glasper slammed Ryan’s head into the floor in the Estelle Unit showers while Ryan’s hands were cuffed behind his back and could not break his fall. 

Glasper was arrested for aggravated assault by a public servant about a week later. Ryan died the next week. A Walker County grand jury refused to indict Glasper on assault charges in February 2020 and he was released.

David Witt, 41, sat in a day room at the Darrington Unit on August 16, 2017, refusing orders to return to his cell but still talking to two guards when a third guard, Sgt. Lou Joffrion, 24, entered the day room. Joffrion had just finished a six-month probationary period stemming from a prior use-of-force incident involving Witt. 

Witt stood, took off his shirt, and walked across the room, taking prisoner phones off their hooks as he went. He eventually kicked off his shoes and stripped naked, but he made no threatening moves. After talking with the other guards for about a minute, he put his clothes back on and began to leave the day room with them. As he did so, he casually and slowly pulled an ice cooler to the floor by its handle. 

Joffrion charged past the other guards and slammed Witt against the wall. Witt initially resisted being handcuffed, but submitted after another guard intervened. He started walking off with a guard then resisted, pulling the other way. 

That is when Jeffrion bent down behind Witt, wrapped his arms around Witt’s thighs, lifted him straight up, and slammed him into the concrete floor — all of which was video-recorded. Witt was immediately rendered unconscious and died from the blunt force injuries to his head later that day. 

Joffrion resigned from TDCJ and was tried for aggravated assault by a public servant, but a jury found him not guilty in October 2019. Jack Choate, head of the Texas Special Prosecution Unit for prison cases, said his team proved its case against Joffrion “beyond all doubt, not just a reasonable doubt.” But cases against prison guards are hard to win given the average juror’s prejudice against prisoners and the need for the jury to differentiate force authorized by law and excessive force. 

Frank Digges, 63, was killed about a month after Joffrion’s trial, after a five-man team extracted him from his cell at the Wynne Unit. A TDCJ report said the cause of death was being struck “in the back of the head several times with a closed fist, which caused trauma to the brain.” 

“When you’re going in there with a five-man extraction team to pull somebody out … I mean, I think five guys can take him,” said Deputy Inspector General Joe Buttitta, whose office investigates any fatal use of force. “When you look at that ... it’s like, ‘OK, so why is there so much blunt force trauma to the head?’”

Two ranking guards involved in the death were demoted and guard Yancy Lett, 28, was fired. Lett was indicted on aggravated assault charges by a Walker County grand jury on February 28, 2020.

Doug Smith, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, believes the increased violence by guards is due to understaffing. In December 2019, TDCJ reported it was short about 4,500 guards, representing 18 percent of budgeted staffing levels. 

That, in turn, is the result of low guard pay and meager benefits, according to Lance Lowry, vice president of the Correctional Officers Association of Texas. He said the twin problems represent “just an overall philosophy that the officers are expendable,” causing experienced officers to quit their jobs in record numbers and leaving inexperienced, poorly trained guards facing the most difficult tasks. 

“You need more experienced officers that have better inmate management skills to handle a lot of these situations,” said Low Deputy Inspector General Joe Buttitta. “Veteran officers know how to de-escalate the situation, where a newer officer may not have the skills to do that.” 

In 2015, state lawmakers made a stab at improving guard training for dealing with prisoners suffering mental health disorders. But the bill could not survive a veto by Gov. Greg Abbott, who called its training requirements “rigid and arbitrary.”

The rise in guard-on-prisoner violence in Texas mirrors an increase in deaths while in law enforcement custody in the state. Custodial deaths, including those in jails, climbed from 545 in 2005 to 769 in 2018.

Prisoner advocates say Texas needs to increase pay to improve retention of experienced guards and also needs to improve training for new hires, including courses on conflict de-escalation and how to handle individuals with mentally illness.