A broken system: Behind the bars of Texas prisons – Part 1: The inmates

Texas Prison System
Texas Prison System

The Dallas Examiner

“… [I] wanted to tell you about how the Captain took an inmate’s crutches… an old gal about 60, wouldn’t give her a cane or wheelchair…We were at Hobby Unit turned out for work at 4:30 a.m., temp about 30° or so… No inmate can touch another inmate or help another inmate…You’re not allowed to wear your “coat” (windbreaker with about 1/8 fiber fill) going off unit. Ol’ girl was to make the trip to Galveston/John Sealy Hospital/Inmate side…Long, cold trip without a coat… She was made to crawl about 200 yards to the van.

Some of us offered to help [her] get to the van… officers told us to shut up, and turn around. They don’t want you witness ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ with ‘deliberate indifference …’”

– 2017 text sent by Shirley Southerland, Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmate paroled after 26 years for a murder she did not commit.

Incarceration for the guilty is not intended to be a pleasant experience.

Even as a young Black male, Chris Rock joked on his album, Born Suspect that the point of prison is “A place for prisoners to feel uncomfortable.” Inmates and correctional officers alike who have spoken out on crime agree that, for some, prison is a fair reward.

However, in a nation that declares itself as the land of the free, stripping an offender of freedom is considered the philosophical cost of a drastic breach of law. The Eighth Amendment preventing cruel or unusual punishment generally tamps down on any notion of a piling-on of personal or private vengeance in addition to an official fine, community service or doing time.

What then, when correctional officers in Texas state jails and prisons – who have both laws and regulations to follow – cut moral corners when executing their duties? What about officers who use unnecessary force on their charges, or see inmates as a source of personal income, or even a larger justice system so intent on – not reforming prisoners, but rather pulling in the most taxpayer funds while putting the least amount of effort into those in their custody?

“I was tortured on that wing,” Shirley Southerland, 69, of Upshur County voiced about her incarceration in Gatesville’s Dr. Lane Murray unit, where she had to undergo the amputation of a broken right finger after it was injured by a sabotaged printing press.

The former inmate – convicted of the 1989 murder of Shawnte Collins and released through the efforts of the Innocence Project and Armour of God Prison Ministries – could not emotionally bare retelling the details of her medical treatment, which included the rebreaking of her arm after the bones did not heal correctly and a lack of painkillers during recuperation.

However, even as she carries the burden of pushing through with a lengthy exoneration process, she was able to provide an impression of prison when officers refuse to adhere to their own system’s rules.

Southerland’s first stint behind bars for the Collins’ murder was at the Mountain View Unit, where she described the officers as older and more secure in their position as guards to keep things “settled down,” as she called it.

“They had a much more subtle way with them. But you also had the jerks who took that uniform as being the Shroud of Turin, where they became a god or something in there,” she complained.

“They tried to do everything to make you miserable, and the other guards didn’t like that because when you have a guard that wants to crank things up, walk into a dorm, automatically getting everybody stirred up, and then they stir them up until they have to bring in the [tear]gas or they do ‘use of force’…,” Southerland explained, specifying the term for dealing with a prisoner in a physical way. “The other guards do not appreciate that because they can keep that prison for them calm, and that’s what the wardens want.” But the misbehavior of corrections officers did not just involve misuse of power, she asserted. “Dirty” C.O.s are also out for profit from favored inmates.

“Yes, they do break rules. They bring in drugs. They will bring them in cellphones, chargers, you name it, because they’re subsidizing their income,” she stated. “Everyone that needed to survive in there had to hustle. [Inmates] stole out of the kitchen, and your officers stole out of the kitchen, too.”

An incident in 2017 supports what Southerland said she witnessed while in imprisoned.

Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department employee Gilberto Escaramillo was arrested in August for a prolonged scam involving the department’s kitchen and a private vendor. Escaramillo was taken into custody for the theft of $1.2 million worth of fajita meat over a nine-year period at a facility that never served fajitas.

Even if such actions are limited, it still makes for a sizable population of Black, White and Latino inmates who are having their rights violated, as well as taxpayers left holding the financial bag when courts are involved.

The 2015 report In Our Own Backyard; Confronting Growth and Disparities in American Jails investigated national trends in incarceration data. In Dallas County alone, the total incarcerated population grew from under 2,000 in 1970 to just under 6,000 in 2015 with a peak of more than 9,000 prisoners in 1994. The largest number of inmates during this time period usually tended to be African American, with White inmates a close second.

Meanwhile, The Texas Department of Criminal Justice Statistical Report for fiscal year 2016 offered statewide data on those incarcerated. For the “635,396 cases under supervision on August 31, 2016, as well as those received and released throughout the fiscal year,” per the report, the top three ethnic groups held in prison or state jail at the time were White at 37.7 percent, Hispanic at 32.7 percent, and Black at 29 percent.

The 2016 report does acknowledge that an offender may be under more than one category, so separate cases do not equal the number of offenders. Still, the report indicates that almost 30 percent of the prison population was Black while the total state population for the same ethnic group in July 2016 was 12.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census website. Of late, the number of Black inmates in state jail or prison who may have had to deal with correctional officers of compromised integrity has been more than double the ratio of the Black population of the state.

Mark, 40, an East Texas resident who requested that only his first name be used, also agreed to talk about what he witnessed in state lockup while he served time on a charge of possession of a controlled substance.

“A lot of them correction officers are lucky that the people that they’re trying to push around can’t get out or fight ‘em on the street, you know what I’m saying?” he decreed in a burst of anger. “They get away with it kind of like a bully thing.”

Like Southerland, Mark agreed that there were some great correctional officers working for the state but stated that there were others that should be serving time for their infractions.

“They belong in there, no protective custody,” he said. “The things that really run rampant in there are rape and extortion.”

Mark also voiced that discipline in his unit was extremely random.

He recalled one incident where an officer named Atkins wrote him up and limited his access to the commissary “… because I raised my hands to a correction officer.”

However he contended that he had only shrugged his shoulders and bent his elbows in an ‘I don’t know’ gesture.

“Man, we filed so many grievances,” he admitted as he referred to the paperwork inmates fill out if they believe their rights have been violated.

Medical issues also vexed Mark while he was incarcerated; as did the failings he found in the TDCJ system taxpayers were footing. He asserted that time spent in the Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility opened his eyes to how both inmates and the taxpayers could be easily shortchanged.

The facility was run by a doctor, Mark said, “He’s a psychologist. So this guy is paid for every inmate that is in there for his services and his time to help rehabilitate people.” Mark affirmed that he was in the facility for seven and a half months yet never spoke to this doctor.

“That’s another thing … sitting there, driving a f—-ing high-end Corvette and s—- that taxpayer dollars are paying for because he’s a psychologist, and he wants to write books about ‘Oh, let me tell you about how this guy Mark is,’” the ex-inmate spit out in exasperation.

Despite three years in state facilities and his time spent at the SAFPF, Mark is still having difficulty rebuilding his life in the free world, repairing damaged relationships with his family, finding regular work, coping with ADHA, and resisting the temptation of drugs he has used since the second grade when they were medically prescribed to him.

Yet again, as if to authenticate what both ex-prisoners expounded upon, an incident stemming from the lack of suitable medical care within the state’s prison system was recently wrapped up.

In 2017 former nurse Brittany Danae Johnson pleaded guilty Nov. 27 to misdemeanor negligent homicide in the 2016 death of Morgan Angerbauer at a Texarkana jail. Documents show that the inmate asked Johnson to check her blood sugar, yet the nurse refused. Angerbauer died of diabetic ketoacidosis, which is caused by severely high glucose levels.

In 2011, The Texas Tribune published an article on the Gregg County jail after inmate Amy Cowling died due to untreated medical issues, writing “Since 2005, there have been nine deaths here, a large number compared to other lockup facilities its size. Interviews with jail and prison experts and others who have had firsthand experiences with the lockup and its medical staff, and a review of scores of public documents reveal a troubled local jail where staff turnover is extremely high and inmates routinely complain about medical care.”

The Associated Press and the Longview News-Journal also reported that five jailers had been fired in relation to the death, and Sheriff Maxey Cerliano added two more jail medical personnel “who are either licensed vocational nurses or paramedics.” A nurse practitioner who sees inmates Mondays and Fridays was also hired.

Debate still surrounds the 2015 death of Sandra Bland in a Waller County jail as mental health and civil rights activists charge she should have been placed on suicide watch or hospitalized instead left alone in a cell after being arrested for felony assault on a public servant.

Mark saw common, but flagrant rule breaking such as contraband being brought in by the C.O.s; inmates doing the laundry of the ranking officers’ families; repetitive minor lawlessness, and plenty of humiliating, hateful attitude. Southerland, however, experienced major systemic issues in the time she served.

Donations from Starbucks and donated meat was taken away from the prison while prisoners were told there was not enough food to feed everyone, she remarked. In the past, meals were supplemented with Vita Pro, a soy-based meat substitute that was causing digestive problems for inmates.

“It smelled like they were burning dead dogs,” Southerland said of the product.

She assisted in exposing the company’s questionable contract with the state and the health issues caused by Vita Pro. In May 1996 Texas Monthly broke the story.

“I’d helped inmates write grievances… after I’d gotten labels off the bags, sending them out of the prison in stuffed animals I made in craft shop,” the ex-inmate said of the case.

She jiggered – acted as a lookout – when inmates and officers had sex, and even had her own officer boyfriend in the Hobby Unit. A female officer, Lt. Travis, gave a “stand down on the camera” order so that no video was taken of a use of force, then kicked a belligerent handcuffed female inmate in the face and stomach.

Craft shops were shut down for the women, Southerland continued. Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous programs were also cut.

“They have killed all the programs that helped me,” she opined. “They killed programs that helped others.”

Prescriptions intended for the inmates were smuggled out by some C.Os to be used or sold before then-Gov. Rick Perry ordered a tightening-up of jail security, a claim also made by Mark.

Southerland even vows that an African American inmate who requested a transfer to a different facility died of a broken neck from officers’ use of force, both as a payback for her crime outside of prison and for the hassle of staff having to go through with the transfer. That information came from an informant, she said, and illustrated her concept that “justice isn’t justice” without some “revenge” inflicted by officials.

“It was reported that she hung herself,” Southerland vigorously affirmed. “Hearsay or not, I know she did not kill herself. She was a devout Christian in prison… They broke her neck via use of force.

“They are there to protect you. They are there to keep the peace, and there are those who will let you get cut up before they call for backup.”

Southerland said of the C.O.s and noted that the good and the bad would eventually clash.

“Officers could become enemies,” she remarked.

Now living outside of prison, but not yet free, Southerland admits that she cannot be around crowds and has PTSD “real bad.” She lives in a home with family and has the second floor all to herself, yet still locks the door to her room.

“There are things we haven’t even hit,” she concluded on what little she could stand to reveal. “I do not want to overwhelm myself.”

Southerland then took a break from the conversation, asserting that she experienced a flashback to her time behind bars and got emotional.

And as the former prisoner reflected on all the scams, wrongs, and abuses of authority she lived with for roughly a third of her life, she gestured sideways with her index finger – using her one fully-intact hand – and exclaimed “That’s all where taxpayer money goes.”

There are, in fact, former correctional officers who confirm some of what Southerland presented; they will share their own stories in part two of this series.


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