After locking down almost 129,000 prisoners for nearly two weeks to search for contraband, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) announced on September 18, 2023, that “normal operations” had resumed at 64 of its 98 facilities. But prison officials had little to show for the effort, confiscating just $376 in unauthorized cash, 196 cellphones and 274 weapons – “generally pieces of sharpened metal with fashioned handles.” Their search also turned up five water bottles that tested positive for K-2 and about 35 gallons of smuggled or homemade alcohol – enough for a fifth to be shared by every 955 state prisoners.
TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier imposed the lockdown on September 6, 2023, citing no specific incident, but pointing to a surge in violence – especially homicides – which officials called drug-related. In 2022, seven prisoners were murdered, and there were nine the year before that. However, there have already been 16 homicides in 2023, with many of those linked to illegal drugs, insisted spokesperson Amanda Hernandez.
The lockdown meant prisoners were confined to their cells and visitation was suspended while the system-wide search for contraband was underway. Contraband, including drugs and cellphones, has been a longstanding problem in Texas prisons. In 2008, then-Gov. Rick Perry (R) locked down all 112 prisons the state operated at the time, after a death row inmate made a cellphone call to a state senator from inside the prison. [See: PLN, Mar. 2009, p.29.] TDCJ subsequently took measures such as using call jammers and conducting drug tests on staff to reduce smuggling.
In 2021, TDCJ implemented the Inspect 2 Protect program, deploying more drug-sniffing dogs during visitation days and imposing stricter rules on mail – allowing only plain white paper and a few photographs. “This was really startling for us,” said Jennifer Toon, Project Director at Lioness Justice Impacted Women’s Alliance, “because physical mail, especially to women that have kids, it’s something that you always go back to. You pull it out of your property and you hold on to it to connect those feelings of your loved ones.”
After her group “pushed back really hard,” she said that TDCJ “allowed people to send greeting cards around Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Christmas. And they assured us that they would never take away physical mail.”
But that’s exactly what they did, implementing a program in July 2023 to eliminate most physical mail and replace it with digital scans made available to prisoners on electronic tablets. Prison officials claimed paper soaked in synthetic THC or methamphetamines was being mailed to prisoners. But investigations by the Texas Tribune and The Marshall Project found low-paid TDCJ employees in understaffed facilities were the major source of drug smuggling – not mail from family and friends.
Books, magazines and legal mail are exempted from the ban. But mail from loved ones — including photographs — may no longer be physically touched by prisoners, though “there’s little to no evidence that this reduces contraband,” Toon said.
According to a prison spokeswoman, 17 people in TDCJ facilities have died since the lockdown started. The cause of three of those deaths is still pending, another 10 were “natural deaths” and four more were suicides.
Sources: Texas Standard, Texas Tribune; Dallas Morning News
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