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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

“I think a lot of people don’t understand that these people are in jail and I don’t look at them as being innocent or guilty. They were arrested for a reason and were put in jail for a reason,” she voiced. “I’ve seen innocent people go in and I’ve seen guilty people come in. I’m not the jury or judge. I don’t do that. All I do is my job, which is to take care of them.”

She complained that in some situations, people may see brutality by the officers but they rarely know “the backstory” of what previously occurred, confessing that she had been repeatedly, physically attacked by inmates during her tenure at the jail.

But did Mary ever witness unethical behavior by jail personnel?

“I try to stay out of that,” she replied, acknowledging that anywhere there is politics, there will be a percentage of corruption.

“If I see it coming, I turn around and I’m like ‘I don’t want anything to do with it.’ It’s not because I’m trying to be blind for it; it’s so I won’t get caught up in it because that’s not my thing.”

Lest critics lament that Mary’s look-away approach protected only herself, she cautioned that unprofessional county officers become so obvious that they invariably get caught and disciplined, regardless of whether or not the outcome makes the news.

“I’ve known of things, but I don’t get involved. It’s been taken care of by supervisors. I hear about them after the fact.”

Mary noted the only time she ever truly witnessed improper behavior was by an officer who did not like her personally, “… and I dealt with that myself,” she said, relating a tale of physically grabbing the officer to get him off of a compliant inmate.

Her detailed ways of the Dallas jail echo what other prisoners and C.O.s have inferred; while prisoner misbehavior can span the spectrum from annoying to outright lethal, poor behavior on the part of officers can derail the proper functioning of such institutions, violate prisoner rights, or endanger inmates and officers alike, should vengeful prisoners decide to take out their ire on someone randomly due to mistreatment.

“There’s always going to be brazenness and a dark side to working there, you know?” considered documentary filmmaker Joe Salinas, 42, as he described what he experienced as a TDCJ officer from 1994 to 2001. “It’s a choice that you make of whether or not you cross that line.”

In December 2013, “Renee,” an inmate from the Crain Unit in Gatesville wrote,“Then there are a select few [officers] who are kind and and helpful or even have a good sense of humor…”

Often, officers and inmates develop a structured cordialness as a way to keep a potential powder keg stable.

“I’d play a cat and mouse game with them,” Mary said about those in her care whom she would catch breaking a small rule, such as leaving personal food on a communal table, which can be an indicator of under-the-radar gambling. “One, it’s a sense of humor thing, you know, get their respect, and I always joked around with the inmates because officers get bored, too. They get bored. We get bored. So sometimes I’d play little games with them.”