A broken system: Behind the bars of Texas prisons – Part 2: No rehabilitation here

Texas Prison   Food service
Texas Prison Food service

The Dallas Examiner

“I’ve met a lot of people and heard a lot of stories… I’ve seen a lot of bad things and watched guards just not care, or behave in a despicable manner.” – Excerpt of a letter from inmate “Renee” sent from the Crain Unit, Gatesville, December 2013

“Amanda Gonzales” – who asked that her real name not be used for this article – is 37, a Collin County resident, a licensed gun owner raised in a religious home, and a believer that those who break the law should be held accountable for their actions.

Yet, after six weeks of training and eight months of employment as a Texas Department of Criminal Justice correctional officer at Buster Cole State Jail in Bonham, this mother of one is also convinced that there is a dire need for prison reform in Texas.

Her desire to assist in law enforcement was legitimate, she lamented.

“I did want to truly help people and I wanted to help the victims of the crimes and keep the bad people, or the criminals, in and not out. I shouldn’t call them ‘bad people’, but there were ‘criminal charges,’” she said, correcting herself.

“They teach us at academy – where we train in East Texas – that we are supposed to rehabilitate the prisoners. They do not rehabilitate those prisoners. They sit on their butts and watch television all day or they are given jobs.”

Jobs such as tractor work, sweeping sidewalks and other outside work, she said

Even the inmates realized there were aspects to incarceration that were missing.

“I think it says a lot when they say ‘Hey, they’re not rehabilitating us here,” the ex-officer said.

Gonzales would be respectful with the offenders and demand that they learned good manners, but verbally agreed with their assessment.

“There was no rehab. There was no help for psychological issues. We had a schizophrenic in there. They let him go see the psychiatrist once in a while but, again, if they couldn’t afford medical, they didn’t get into the psychiatrist and they didn’t get their medication,” she said, since offenders must pay a fee for their own medical treatment.

“So you had schizophrenics and you had issues with them. They would go off and put us in danger and no one did anything about it.”

There was no training on controlling their temper; no classes on citizenship, financial management, parenting; and no college education offered even though TDJC is aware many inmates would be released back into general society one day.

“They do train some; they let them get their GED, which is a good program, or they train them in HDAC and plumbing,” Gonzales confirmed regarding vocational training for which inmates can apply.

“They don’t pay them at all. I always though that it might be a good idea to at least give them some commissary money ‘cause a lot of those people do not have any money; they have no family to send them money, so they can’t even by shoes when they need to, or buy tennis shoes to play at basketball on the court during rec.”

The financial reward might also inspire other inmates to better themselves with training, she suggested.

Some of the former C.O.’s claims point to what may simply be the results of budget cutbacks. However, other details she provided revealed a segment of correctional officers and higher-ranked personnel who routinely take advantage of their position, ignoring TDC regulations and laws for things as petty as self-importance or as large as personal enrichment.

“Some of the officers there have some, I would say, major egos, and they were there pretty much because they wanted to control people and be mean to people and they knew that rank (supervisors of higher positions) would look the other way and let them be mean to people.”

The offenders who were in Gonzales’ charge ranged from 18 to 80 years in age. Although the racial makeup of inmates in Texas’ correctional facilities indicates there are about three times the number of Black inmates in scale to the state’s Black population, she voiced that at Buster Cole the ethnicity of the population of the unit tended to be “pretty even.”

When it came to race behind prison walls and the officers Gonzales maintained that neglect and inequitable treatment was dispensed in even doses. Although race may play a major part in the social society within prison culture, she indicated the mis-wielding of power by the staff was of a colorblind nature and was often motivated by dollars.

One of the ways control is maintained “on the inside” is by officers writing cases – a recorded infraction on an inmate that can lead to losing privileges, solitary confinement, add time to a sentence, and so on.

“When I first started, one of the sergeants pulled me inside and she goes ‘You need to write a lot of cases, because if you don’t, rank won’t like you,’” Gonzales confessed.“I said, ‘Well, what if they don’t do wrong?’ [I asked, she said,] ‘Well, you write them anyway, for the littlest things. Go ahead and write ‘em.’ she said ‘because this is a private corporation. That’s how we make our money. If they’re given a lot of cases then they’ll get more time, and we can put more charges on them and they’ll stay there longer. And that’s how y’all get paid.’

“So they do write cases on people when they’re not doing anything, yes,” the former TDCJ employee complained.

“A lot of them try to give out cases [write-ups, which look bad come parole time] left and right. They don’t want to see us make parole.” – Excerpt from inmate Renee’s letter.

Twenty cases a week is what Gonzales was told she needed to write. She pointed out that the jail is in Fannin County, what she described as the third most impoverished county in the state.

“So a lot of the people working in those prisons are the local people that their only choice for a job is the prison. They either work for Walmart, Subway or the prison,” said Gonzales, who holds a bachelor’s degree.

She estimated starting officers with no degree make around $24,000 annually.

“They get a lot of uneducated people out there. TDCJ has a reputation of hiring anybody because they’re always shorthanded, but then you run into rank,” she said.

Despite proper training, Gonzales asserted, “A lot of officers are officers because they get to be mean and they get to get on a power trip and everybody looks the other way and they don’t get in trouble for it and that’s why they are a corrections officer.”

She explained that a poor county combined with a for-profit company receiving state funds for services results in a situation where taxpayer money goes not to create more economic development within the region, but rather supports a revolving-door employment pattern for locals within a correctional facility that fails to correct.

“I think the government gives them [money]. They’re paid by heads, and that’s why they want as many people, and keep as many people, in there as possible,” she stated about a system she suspects is similar to school funding based on student attendance. The emphasis is placed not on correction, society’s safety or even punishment, but job security.

When the subject of any pre-hire personality tests or psychological screening was brought up, the ex-officer tackled it head on, responding “No. Absolutely none.”

“LynnAnne Jones” is a former C.O. who served simultaneously with Gonzales. Unlike her friend and co-worker Jones herself broke protocol by having an inappropriate relationship with an inmate. As a result, she underwent what Gonzales termed a “forced quit” of her position in April 2017 and faces indictment. Despite that, Jones was willing to address what she experienced at Buster Cole under a pseudonym in a series of text messages arranged by Gonzales.

“Every human should be treated human no matter their past mistakes, [especially] lower risk crimes,” Jones offered in an October 2017 message. “Buster Cole was a Medium Security Prison, mostly drugs, drugs with possible intent to distribute, minor assault and DWIs,” Jones wrote.

Gonzales added that police officers are tasked to “protect and serve law-abiding citizens, so it doesn’t pertain to lawbreakers,” in a later message of her own.

“However, an officer should be protecting and reporting health concerns or possible chance of self-bodily harm, and the rank at Buster Cole just didn’t care. If we don’t report it, it could make TDCJ liable for a wrongful death lawsuit. But, since no one can win against TDCJ, the protocol is overlooked. The offenders are treated like animals, not humans.”

Jones also stated, “We are taught not to protect, and not to care about the offenders’ well-being. They teach us protocol on emergencies, but then the officers and rank say they ‘don’t care if offenders die or kill them selves; one less to body to baby-sit.’”

Gonzales emphasized Jones’ point of view further in a forwarded text.

“If we start trying to protect, then Rank thinks we care too much and starts watching us and investigating us; thinking we care and might start a relationship with an offender,” the text read.

In an odd twist, Jones’ violations – which included writing a prisoner though a U.S post box, and passing a note to an inmate – were discovered by accident because of an investigation into Gonzalez. The former C.O. had brief words with an offender as another officer had problems opening an electronic door that separated Gonzales and the inmate.

This minimal contact drew attention from the upper rank, resulting in an investigation. The discovery of Jones’ relationship by random chance is further damning as to how the facility is run, Gonzales emphasized. Even though race did not matter much at Buster Cole, the gender and appearance of the officers did.

“I felt discriminated against because if you had really short hair and you didn’t look straight, they wanted you there,” she asserted. “If you had longer hair or looked feminine they didn’t want you there. They were too scared you were going to create a relationship with the offenders, and that’s not fair. I am educated. That’s not right. I would have never done something like that.”

The former officer accepts that female officers have assisted inmates’ escapes from facilities in the past and that it is not a risk take lightly by the TDCJ. Meanwhile, Jones did admit to the note and letters. Still, Gonzales believes that female C.O.s who work under a blanket assumption of suspicion due to their looks, and are not judged on the competency of their abilities, is as pernicious a system of bias as is one race being wholly judged due to a subset of troublemakers.

Gonzales revealed that it was not just prisoners that were having their rights violated, or being put at risk due to questionable behavior or state-supported negligence.

“We only had a 15-minute break every day. We worked eight hours and 45 minutes and we only had a 15-minute break. We had just enough time to race to the chow hall and come back,” she said. “They totally go away from all the federal laws and they don’t get caught. No one does anything the TDC says.”

The TDCJ handbook does state that meal breaks are called “convenience breaks” for which staff is not entitled, and there are no federal or state laws that mandate breaks, according to the United States Department of Labor.

However, lunch and regular breaks promote good health and a more positive morale in the workplace, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an agency of the DOL.

For TDCJ workers, this type of work environment – with limited breaks – can lead to tired, underfed, unhappy officers in charge of multiples lives, including their own.

For example, circumstances that involved edgy offenders were never de-escalated, the ex-officer emphasized, despite the training C.O.s received specifically for that task.

“I got aggravated at Buster Cole because no one ever tried to diffuse the situation … if you called rank on the radio they’d come in, handcuff the person without any questions of what was happening and put them in administrative segregation without even questioning what was going on.

“I had an officer that hit a guy over the head with a clipboard. They didn’t believe the offender, and I was in the picket [an indoor guard tower] and I saw it all happen. The guy got away with it.”

Gonzales said that she would report things yet no action would be taken.

“The rank looks the other way for rank, even if they do wrong.”

The physical environment also needs to be taken into consideration, she expressed.

“I left back in June 2017 because I was overheating because there is no air conditioning and there’s no fans for the floor-rover,” she recalled. “Another issue is they don’t fix leaks so they’ve got black mold all over that prison. The second month I was there I had to report to the lieutenant that someone needed to be moved on a bunk bed because it was raining through the roof on their bunk bed.”

Four months after that incident she learned from another officer that the leak had been present for the past two years.

Shirley Southerland, a TDCJ inmate who served 26 years for a murder she did not commit, never set foot in Buster Cole yet confirmed from her own experiences the financial mismanagement and environmental dangers of units across the state.

“It would be so hot. We had an officer – she had a heatstroke one night. It was 1 o’clock in the morning and it was 108 degrees in that building … see, they’re suffering, too,” she admitted.

“You had a control that was air-conditioned, and that’s all the visitors get to see inside, and look through the glass at us in the dormitory area and they’re thinking it’s air-conditioned. It isn’t.”

She said the officers who work with the inmates in the dorms “… are as hot as we are.”

That adds to the problem.

“There’s 101 inmates on each side of one of these pods, and you have one officer working in there, and that officer gets hot and doesn’t want to fool with us, don’t care, they go up in there where it’s air-conditioned, just watch just through the window,” Southerland explained. “And that’s when all kinds of things are going on. People are getting raped, and robbed and everything else. It would be so hot inside those buildings. If it was 100 degrees outside it’s 110 in the buildings.”

In January 2017, The Dallas Examiner published a report on the number of heat-related deaths in the TDCJ system. In the article it was disclosed that U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison decreed that temperature-linked health issues were such a problem that he was ordering the state to disclose the number of heat-related deaths since 1990 in Texas prisons.

This order was part of a 2013 civil rights lawsuit where at least 13 inmates held by the TDCJ died since 2007, “Including, 11 in 2011 when a heat wave brought some of the hottest temperatures on record,” The Associated Press was reported within the article. Gonzales knew very well about the case through her own Dallas attorney, who had turned down her Equal Opportunity Employment discrimination case.

“He said ‘You can’t win. We can’t even win against [TDCJ]. They are way too big of a conglomerate and no one wins against them.’ They had had a suit where 12 of the offenders had died overheating with no air conditioning and they still got away with not putting in air conditioners,” she exclaimed angrily.

Even then, Buster Cole does not represent every state facility. Gonzalez addressed the issue as best she could of what may be occurring elsewhere. “I have friends that went to academy that are happy with their jobs. They are not dealing with female discrimination like I did. I think it has to do with who’s in rank and who abuses the power that they are given.”

Ultimately, Gonzales reflected on how a hypothetical individual, incarcerated 25 years, who has never used the internet, a cellular phone, driven a modern car, and is not familiar with cultural shifts would find and keep a self-supporting job without returning to crime.

“They don’t,” Gonzales considered. “They’ll go sell drugs and get right back in because they have no education. We didn’t rehabilitate them. We didn’t show them how to live in the real world.”

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