A broken system: Behind the bars of Texas prisons – Part 3: The taxpayer’s cost

TDCJ heat
TDCJ heat

The Dallas Examiner

“Texas leads the free world in incarcerations.” – Commissioner John Wiley Price

Alton Rodgers was an inmate who earned his place in the William Clements Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Found guilty in the death of a Dallas peace officer, Rodgers was sentenced to life in prison, never again to step beyond concrete walls and security fences.

What he was not sentenced to was a year of starvation, denial of treatment for his tuberculosis, and a beating death at the hands of his cellmate in 2016 – the things Rodgers’ family alleges occurred, as stated in their $120 million wrongful death lawsuit against 34 different defendants.

As reported by The Intercept in January 2017, “According to Northwest Texas Hospital records, Rodgers was admitted with hypoglycemia, a urinary tract infection, dehydration, bilateral bronchopneumonia, bed sores indicating prolonged immobility, and other conditions.”

The Amarillo Globe-News reported in July 2016 that 18 correctional officers were disciplined in the prisoner’s death. They later reported in October of that same year “[Rodgers] …was described by one medical examiner as being in an advanced “starving” state that is more often associated with advanced cancer patients or Holocaust survivors.”

“The purpose of the lawsuit is to change the way [the state of Texas] treats inmates who are suffering very serious diseases,” the family’s attorney, Jesse Quackenbush, told The Intercept.

In August 2017, Prison Legal News reported the case remained pending.

As previous installments of The Dallas Examiner series, A Broken System have revealed, former TDCJ inmates and corrections officers alike have brought to light unprofessional and unconstitutional actions from other C.O.s as well as highlighted a department of the state that seems to be both very powerful yet underfunded.

However, when the TDCJ is called out as being negligent, or its specific employees reckless with their charges, those who pay a penalty may not be limited to the incarcerated or other honest officers. Taxpayers themselves may take a hit in the pocketbook when proper care is not taken in maintaining order or the well-being of officers and inmates.

The TDCJ Agency Operating Budget 2018 indicates a projected available budget of $3,302,926,598 from the state and federal government. This amount is broken down in the document into the various categories where the funds will be dispersed, such as $70,279,650 for basic supervision and $118,945,907 for utilities.

Should the Rodgers family win their lawsuit and see even a part of their award, that money would come from taxpayers since the TDCJ is mostly financed by the General Revenue Fund.

If the state awarded the Rodgers family all of the $120 million they are suing for that amount would equal the Health Services, Halfway House Facilities, Correctional Training, Treatment Alternatives To Incarceration, Major Repair Of Facilities and Victims Services parts of the TDCJ budget – and still be more than $23 million short.

That is just for one case against the department with no other pending or potential lawsuits being taken into account.

Realistically, it is almost a mathematical certainty that the department would not lose every case it were to be pressed with, and cases that are not outright dropped or found in favor of the TDCJ would still be settled for a much lower payout to the plaintiffs. Still, the Rodgers case indicates the possible financial fallout that suits against the department represent. And, even cases that are won, dropped or settled, still tie up courts.

“Sad to say, the majority of changes that I think would be implemented would be because of something in a negative way; something bad that would happen, like, ‘We have to change that. That can’t happen again so now we have to do something completely different,’” remarked Joe Salinas, 42, a former TDCJ officer who is now a documentary filmmaker in California.

Salinas, who worked as a correction officer from 1994 to 2001 beginning when he was 18, was employed in various departments and units as he moved up in rank, witnessing a sluggish change from 1960s and 1970s-era prison policy to a more modernized system. Still, he said even then, there were improvements that needed to be made.

Air conditioning has continually been one of those legal sticking points.

“It would be so hot inside those buildings. If it was 100 degrees outside it’s 110 in the buildings,” confirmed former inmate Shirley Southerland, who served 26 years in numerous units for murder before being paroled and beginning her exoneration process. Southerland discussed some of what she saw when it came to the heat and prison farm work teams.

“They would take the girls out on hoe squad, and if they laid it down – which means they stopped working – they would put them in a cage and leave them there. And water rations was next to nothing. I was one of the ones that fought for having … ice water to be put in the dorms,” she asserted. “Now that went up into Judge Wayne Justice’s court and they were supposed to do this three times a day, or they were supposed to keep the water barrels full. These officers, they got cold water, they didn’t care.”

Her reference to U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice also recalls the case Ruiz v. Estelle where Justice ruled in 1979 the incarceration conditions in TDCJ were unconstitutional. After that judgement, prison reform slowly came to Texas.

“We had all the duct work in these buildings where they were supposed to be air-conditioned, and the money was paid where it was to be air-conditioned, but where that money went, nobody knows,” Southerland recounted.

“So, when Justice passed that, they spent $750,000 and what? Air-conditioned the pig barn because William Wayne Justice did not specify what buildings. Your tax dollars air-conditioned the pig barn,” she laughed.

The air condition argument has been seen by many as a result of the Ruiz case in terms of what is cruel and unusual punishment.

In what began as a 2013 civil rights lawsuit after four prisoners died of heat stroke, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ordered the state to disclose the number of heat-related deaths since 1990 in Texas prisons. At least 13 inmates held by the TDCJ died due to heat since 2007.

In response to the lawsuit, John Whitmire of the Texas House of Representatives, told The Houston Chronicle in 2014, “We need to have a grown-up discussion of what’s practical and reasonable and what’s politically acceptable … But I can tell you, the people of Texas don’t want air-conditioned prisons, and there’s a lot of other things on my list above the heat. It’s hot in Texas, and a lot of Texans who are not in prison don’t have air conditioning.”

Even ignoring the fact that many are held in state jails without being convicted of anything as they await trial or transfer, or that the state has had a large amount of exonerations, Whitmire did not consider the heat-related illnesses that occur across the state to people who are not in prison and lack air conditioning, and that the same biological effects manifest in prisons.

Further, more prisoners died from heat in 2011 alone – 11 – than did the number of people across the state from 2012 to 2015, according to the National Weather Service website. A search of NWS data shows, statewide, there were three heat deaths in 2012, two in 2013, none in 2014 and five in 2015.

Salinas noted that some facilities had air conditioning and wondered why it wasn’t in place in all the facilities, despite Rep. Whitemire’s declaration.

“That’s a big issue right there. You’re probably not going to have many services,” the filmmaker voiced. “Because when it gets hot it gets nasty. Tensions boil, man and I just knew, like if it was going to be a day when temperatures were in the 90s, and past 100, something was going to happen, you know? ‘Oh, God, great. This is going to be a really s—-y day. Super hot.’”

I just never understood. They have all this money; invest at least in swap coolers or something, to make life a little easier for both staff and people incarcerated.”

He acknowledged that dormitories had fans but they simply blew around hot air.

“And it’s not only inmates falling out; it’s the guards, too. Guards were falling out, too,” Salinas said of the heat exhaustion he witnessed. “You have somebody that’s well into their 60s and 70s and older that might not be in the greatest shape. People younger than that, too, dropping like flies.”

It was the same issue that forced 37-year-old former C.O. Amanda Gonzales – who asked that her real name not be used in this series – to quit working at the Buster Cole Unit, citing, “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.”

The filmmaker considered the tax funds it would take the state to air-condition prisons, and considered the heat deaths and resulting lawsuits, and reflected, “You’re going to pay either way, so why not nip it in the bud now?”

The issue may have finally been put to rest. As reported by The Texas Tribune Feb. 2, “The air conditioning will go into the housing areas of the Wallace Pack Unit southeast of College Station, where temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees in the summer. Inmates argued in court that allowing prison temperatures to rise above 88 degrees amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.”

The news outlet also penned that temporary air conditioning will be installed for the summer of 2018, with permanent AC units installed by May 2020. More locations are likely to see similar changes as well.

Southerland vows that she knew of other abuses of state funds during her incarceration. She divulged that there was a period when a sympathetic C.O. helped her smuggle out pages from the Comptroller’s books so that costs for prison amenities such as metal prison beds – $12,000 each, she claims – could be made known to the public.

She also spoke of some of the personal enrichment scams going on out of sight of the taxpayers, including that of a warden who loved to cook.

“At visitation it was wonderful. He was barbecuing and making nachos and everything, and the visitors would buy it and eat it with the inmates and everything. Well, he was using [Texas Department of Corrections] kitchen food doing that, selling it, and putting money in his pocket.”

Southerland affirms that she has boxes of documents stored in her attic, from grievance forms to letters and lawsuit documents, to back up her claims.

“There’s more crookedness, especially in the ranks and the warden area, than there is in the whole system,” she complained. “You’ve got the good, the bad, and the ugly in all walks of life, but where people are in control of other people, and if the have control to access free food, money or whatever it is, computers, whatever they want, they walk off the unit with it. They steal this stuff and the taxpayers are paying for it.”

The former prisoner even shared a regret; that she did not do more when she was finally placed in a halfway house.

“I really should have went back on those people,” Southerland said of a lawsuit she began but never fully pursued. “I really should have because what they’re doing is wrong. Wherever that money is going, they’re not providing proper food, care. You should not send a person into that place – I talked to a diabetic [who said] ‘You shouldn’t have put me there; you didn’t have what you needed to provide for me,” a lesser echo of the Alton Rodgers complaint a year or two before his death.

“I just hope that this’ll get out to some of the people and the people can lobby and the people can make changes because our prison system is wrong, and what they’re doing to the offenders is wrong,” Gonzales offered. “Texas Department of Criminal Justice is way too big, given way too much power, and it’s wrong.”

Even Salinas, who’s father was also a C.O., and who asserts to this day he takes pride in the service he provided to Texas, likened the prison environment to a slave system, based on how actual prison farms developed.

“They were sugar cane plantations, and then eventually became something else. Like, I know the Retrieve Unit [now the Wayne Scott Unit] – initially, a lot of those prison farms down in that area, Brazoria County – started out as sugar plantations that had slaves. And then after the Civil War, slaves left, people left, but they still wanted to farm the land,” he confirmed.

“It’s a huge machine, you know? It was a broken system. I don’t know what it’s like now, but it was a broken system. And the good guys were trying to fix that, and the good old boys that were still kind of in power … they were still trying to keep it they way it was because that was going to affect their livelihood as things changed.”

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