Keeping the King Quiet

When Steven Russell bid a sly farewell to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, his departure embarrassed state prison officials -- apparently so much so that they've gone to extraordinary lengths to keep Russell's story quiet.

In the five weeks following Russell's capture, the Houston Press made numerous requests to interview Russell. Each request was turned down with the explanation that an interview might hinder the prison system's own investigation of his escape. Prison officials admit that Russell -- a nonviolent criminal -- is the only inmate to be denied access to the media so far this year.

For all of TDCJ's worries about hindering the investigation, the department seems to be taking a very leisurely approach to the matter. In a letter to the Press dated April 25 -- more than a week after his return to Texas -- Russell claimed that he had yet to be questioned by prison investigators. For that matter, he contends he was never questioned about his first escape from TDCJ, in December 1996.

Additionally, Don Dobbins -- the man who picked up Russell at the south Texas nursing home -- says he has not been interviewed by any law-enforcement authority connected to the case.

In addition to not allowing the Press to interview Russell, TDCJ internal affairs officials have also forbidden their own investigators from discussing the Russell case with the paper. Telephone calls and a letter to Allan Polunski -- chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, which oversees the TDCJ's internal affairs division -- were not returned.

"By keeping our mouths shut, it makes us look like we have something to hide," says a TDCJ official who asked not to be identified. "It is an embarrassing shutting of the door."

The information blackout also extends to the parole division of the state's criminal justice system. "There is a serious gag order on this case," says a parole division employee who asked for anonymity.

-- Steve McVicker

 
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