A broken system: Are Texas prisons salvageable?

MIKE MCGEE | 5/9/2018, 12:05 a.m.
The mission of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is to provide public safety, promote positive change in offender behavior, ...
Barbed wire surrounds a prison facility. Stock photo

The Dallas Examiner

“The mission of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is to provide public safety, promote positive change in offender behavior, reintegrate offenders into society and assist victims of crime.” – Texas Department of Criminal Justice Correctional Officer Handbook, 2015

As The Dallas Examiner’s series, A broken system: Behind the bars of Texas prisons, has explored the stories and practices related to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, a wide variety of individuals – the guilty, the wrongly convicted, and former correctional officers – have all claimed to have seen similar wrongs and violations. They have also insisted that not enough is done to change offenders’ behavior. Some have even been witnesses to changes in law or policy related to the TDCJ.

TDCJ has had over two months to explain, correct or counter the claims charged in the series, yet has chosen not to comment.

However, some former corrections officers did come forward.

Moreover, every officer and inmate interviewed for the series also had something positive to say about staff that he or she came across during their stints in various TDCJ units. Despite their collective experiences of smuggling, improper use of force, lack of adequate medical care or general abuse of power, those from both sides of the bars agreed that the TDCJ has some remarkable officers; staff who were respectful and fair, endured attacks from violent inmates or harassment from ranking officers, yet still continued to daily perform a thankless, mostly unseen job.

Those who were interviewed, for the most part, recognized a troubled system that was salvageable; an institution that was capable of improvement, rather than in need of abandonment, with the caveat that it was up to individuals – from voters to TDCJ employees – to initiate change for a better system.

Amanda Gonzales, 38, a former corrections officer at the state’s Buster Cole Unit – who asked that her real name not be used – remembered one interaction with a convict who established what made incarceration bearable, and therefore safer, for inmates and staff alike.

“I had one [inmate] come up to me one time and he said to me ‘So, I hear that you’re being too nice. They want you to be meaner to us.’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you think? Do you think I’m too nice?’”

The inmate reportedly replied, “We don’t have to do what you tell us to do. We do what you tell us to do because you earned our respect,” according to Gonzales. “… We know what time you come in, what time you leave here, and we could have you run off the road any time we want. But we respect you because you respect us.”

Gonzales indicated a complex duality: C.O.s can earn the esteem of their charges, yet an underlying frustration towards officers exists due to conditions or treatment linked to incarceration.

Mary, 50, who requested anonymity for this article, was a jailer and trainer for almost 17 years with the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department where she specialized in the care of mentally ill inmates. Although she spent no time working in state institutions, Mary agreed that respect towards the job and the inmates was a key factor in being a successful officer.