Prisons are "Hardening" - Causing Unrest

State prison officials expect unrest to worsen...1 dead, 31 hurt in west Texas riot

04/27/2000 By George Kuempel / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN - Recent prison violence - including Tuesday's inmate riot in Lamesa - was not unexpected and Texans should prepare for more unrest, officials say. One inmate was killed and 31 others were injured in a prison riot in Lamesa, Texas on Tuesday. Officials say more violence is likely as the inmate population grows and guards become more difficult to retain.

The violence is largely the result of what prison director Wayne Scott has called the "hardening of the prisons," a combination of factors that have made the state's 112 units hotbeds of unrest, officials say. Those factors include longer sentences being imposed, elimination of mandatory parole, fewer paroles and the strengthening of prison gangs - all of which have made for more crowded and dangerous prisons.

Tuesday night, one inmate was killed and 31 others were injured in what appeared to be racially motivated rioting between 300 black and Hispanic inmates at the Smith unit in Lamesa, about 30 miles south of Lubbock. The dead inmate was identified as Fernando Trejo, 20, serving a burglary term from Cameron County. The cause of death was not released, and the killer has not been identified, officials said. The injured inmates suffered stab and puncture wounds. One guard suffered minor injuries when a gas grenade went off in his hand. Two other guards also were injured. All three were treated and returned to work, officials said.

Besides the growing prison population, union officials representing prison guards say low pay, understaffing and poor working conditions for guards have emboldened inmates. "These inmates know that these units are short-staffed, and they are going to take advantage of it," said Brian Olsen, deputy director of the Correctional Employees Council of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. "I think it [the violence] is going to domino to some of the bigger and more dangerous units, and it's going to be a horrible summer," he said. "They [the state] had better get the National Guard ready because come Sept. 1 a lot of the veterans are going to leave," he said. That date marks the start of the new fiscal year, and Mr. Olsen said the guards want more pay at least by that date or at least some are prepared to leave their jobs.


Violent incidents involving Texas prison inmates:

April 25: One inmate is killed and 31 are injured when 300 inmates armed with gardening tools fight at the Smith Unit in Lamesa.

April 13: An inmate at the William P. Clements Jr. Unit in Amarillo holds a guard hostage for seven hours before surrendering. The guard is not hurt.

Feb. 21: Two death row inmates armed with pieces of metal take an officer hostage at the Terrell Unit in Livingston and hold her for 13 hours before surrendering. She was not harmed.

Jan. 15: A Huntsville guard is stabbed with a pencil. December 1999: A prisoner at a maximum-security prison in Beeville temporarily frees dozens of inmates after overpowering a guard. About 80 prisoners are let out of their cells, but none gets past the cellblock.

December 1999: Correctional officer Daniel Nagle is stabbed to death at Beeville's McConnell Unit. He is the first Texas correctional officer killed by inmates in 17 years. The death magnifies concerns by prison guards about staff shortages and poor training.

April 1999: A nurse is held for nine hours by two inmates at the Monford unit in Lubbock when they overpower guards and take her hostage with homemade knives. She is not injured.

April 1999: Thirteen inmates are stabbed and four others are taken to a Wichita Falls hospital after a brawl involving nearly 90 prisoners at the Allred Unit.

December 1998: A corrections officer is dragged into a cell and raped in an Abilene prison. She is held for two hours before the inmate gives in to negotiators.

August 1998: A Huntsville prison guard is held hostage for an hour by an inmate with a smuggled handgun. The Holliday unit is locked down for the weekend after the incident.

February 1998: A prisoner holds four hostages after he overpowers a deputy in East Texas on the way back from a dental appointment. He is later caught in Dallas after chaining two deputies to a fence.

June 1997: An inmate takes three hostages at a Canton psychiatric facility. He is caught later that day in Hancock while holding a 15-year-old boy hostage.

April 1997: An inmate kills himself after overpowering two Gaines County deputies on a trip to a law library. He handcuffs the officers to oilfield equipment before shooting himself.

February 1996: A naked prisoner holds a guard hostage for 10 hours in a Palestine prison.

March 1995: A fight involving 400 to 500 prisoners breaks out at a Dilley prison. Four inmates are hospitalized.

Gov. George W. Bush has rejected union demands for a special legislative session to consider a pay hike. The Tuesday riot was the latest in a rash of incidents that included assaults on three female prison employees, the stabbing of two guards and the killing of another. On Monday, three prison officials were assaulted by eight inmates at the Connally Unit in Karnes County, forcing a lockdown of the unit. Two of three officers were treated for minor injuries. None of the inmates was hurt. All Texas prisons were locked down last month following the stabbing death of an inmate at the Coffield Unit near Palestine.

Lupe Lozano, warden at the Smith Unit, said Tuesday's rioting was sparked by a confrontation between several Hispanic and black inmates in the cafeteria. It spilled over onto the recreation yard, where inmates battled with garden tools. "It led to more taunting, and then from there it went to racial slurs and threats and from there it just went all downhill," he said. Reinforcements were called in from other units and eventually about 300 guards were involved. It took about 6 hours to bring the situation under control. Pepper spray was used to subdue the inmates.

Mr. Lozano said there have been similar disturbances at the unit, but this was the worst since he took over two years ago. The prison, which handles minimum, medium and maximum security inmates, was opened in June 1992, as a 1,000-bed facility and has been expanded over the years. Today, it has 2,600 beds, with a current inmate population of 2,142. There are about 400 guards, about 15-20 short of the allotted slots, according to the warden.

In an interview, Mr. Lozano said he has seen a dramatic change in the prison population during his 19 years with the department. "They are younger and more aggressive," and, as always, unpredictable. "A bad letter from home can trigger some off," he said. He said violence is more prevalent now. "It's happening pretty much on several units. It's not something that we expect every day, but it's something that could happen at any time. It's just something we have to stay on our toes and be prepared for."

Lamesa City Manager Paul Feazelle said rumors quickly spread around town Tuesday, none of which were true, that some prisoners had escaped. But by Wednesday things had calmed down. "When reality set in today, everybody seemed pretty comfortable. I was at Rotary at lunch and everybody was talking about it, but I didn't hear anybody say 'we made a mistake' " by bringing in the prison, he said.

Lamesa Police Chief Richard Garcia said the police department received the first call from the prison about 7:45 p.m. requesting an ambulance. The caller said, "We believe we've lost one," he said. Mr. Garcia said there were at least three helicopters in the air; at least two of those were specifically there to transport injured to hospitals. He estimated that 50 to 60 Department of Public Safety officers, Texas Rangers, and police and sheriff's officers were called in to assist prison officials.

Mr. Scott, the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, was not available for comment Wednesday. But Glen Castlebury, a spokesman, recalled that Mr. Scott had foreseen the problems when he took the job five years ago. "The greatest challenges facing adult criminal justice in Texas," he said at the time, "are the hardening of the prisons as violent offenders are incarcerated for a longer and longer time. . . ."

Mr. Scott recommended and got legislative approval to build five super-secure maximum security units for the most dangerous inmates. But that still has not solved the problems. Since 1990, the prison population has more than tripled to 152,000 - about 1,000 short of capacity, according to prison officials. With the bigger population has come more problems.

The number of assaults on prison staff increased from 153 in 1990 to 2,044 last year. Inmate assaults on each other rose from 250 to 1,704 during that same period. And total incidents - ranging from self-mutilations to escape attempts - went from 1,434 to 14,669 during that same period. Prison officials say they expect more violence.

"Yes, we would think one would have to presume that it is going to continue," Mr. Castlebury said. He acknowledged that staffing is a problem, but said none of the incidents have been attributed to inadequate staff. "Why, hell yes, officer shortage is important. These officers are having to work a lot of overtime, they get denied holidays. We're losing a lot of work we would like to do by shortages," he said.

Larry Todd, another prison spokesman, said the system is about 1,800 corrections officers short of its 24,428 allotment. He acknowledged that low pay is a problem. "We're in competition with the private sector economy," he said. "You have young people making more as cashiers and not having the stress and dangers of the prisons," he said.

David Stevens, a free-lance writer based in Amarillo, contributed to this report.