Job Insecurity

For 13 hours, guard Jeanette Bledsoe wondered if she would see one more murder inside prison walls -- her own. Now she wants to make sure TDCJ protects those who protect us from society's rejects.

The correctional officers' union, Correction Council 7 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has been calling on Governor Bush and the legislature to raise guard pay since 1998. On July 4 officers marched on the Governor's Mansion asking Bush to call a special legislative session to address the issue, and challenging him to try wearing their uniform for a day. "Of course, he wasn't there. He was off with his family eating hot dogs or whatever," Bledsoe complains. "As far as Governor Bush, he wants to be president but I don't think he takes care of Texas, so how is he gonna take care of the United States? He needs to do more for us. We have a serious problem. There are not enough people working at those prisons."

Bush did not call a special session, but Stringfellow says that a correctional officer pay raise is the board's top priority in the next regular legislative session, which begins in January. The board is proposing a career ladder that would increase the rate of pay to the national average of $34,000 over a 12-year period. ("Gee, look, honey," one guard jokes, "we can get that garage added on soon, just 11 and a half more years.") But a pay raise proposal failed in the last session because of what union spokesman Olsen calls the "Big Mac and Fries" bill. The budget surplus that might have gone to correctional officers' salaries instead went to property tax relief that Bush could point to in his presidential campaign. The tax cut saved Texas property owners about enough money to buy a Big Mac and fries every month, but it cost the prison system much more.

Unfortunately the problem may be even bigger than the pay issue. Godwin questions whether the staffing guidelines that TDCJ is struggling to meet are even adequate in the first place. The ratio of one guard for every six inmates was determined back in 1985, he says, in response to a landmark lawsuit filed against the Texas prison system by inmate David Ruiz. While the feds no longer enforce this part of the Ruiz ruling, TDCJ essentially still follows these outdated ratio guidelines. But since 1985, Godwin points out, Texas has experienced what the agency calls the "hardening of the inmate population." Under the "tough on crime" Bush administration, more criminals are serving longer sentences with little to no possibility for parole. Because many inmates have no reason to behave in prison, violent assaults on officers have skyrocketed 129 percent in the past five years to 2,044 in 1999, including the stabbing death of correctional officer Daniel Nagle at the McConnell Unit in Beeville. Godwin says that while only one correctional officer died last year, at least 30 assaults were severe enough that they could have resulted in fatalities, including a riot at the same unit just days after Nagle's death in which a prisoner stormed a pod's control center and let 83 inmates out of their cells.

This year may be shaping up to be just as bad. In January, a guard was stabbed in the abdomen with a pencil. In February, Bledsoe was taken hostage. In March, TDCJ imposed a rare systemwide lockdown in an effort to find weapons and prevent a major gang war. In April, there was a riot in Lamesa, and an inmate held a guard hostage for seven hours in Amarillo. In June, correctional officer Irene Fonseca was so badly beaten at the Connally Unit in Kenedy that she was airlifted to a San Antonio hospital with facial fractures and brain swelling. A week later at the same unit, officer Scott Jendrzey was stabbed several times. And in August, a female officer at the Robertson Unit in Abilene was raped by an inmate whose parole request had just been denied. And these are only the most publicized examples.

TDCJ spokesman Glen Castlebury says that not one of these violent incidents is related to short-staffing at the prison units. "The fact is, if you go to every incident that we've had in the prison system in the last five years that's caused any big media attention," he says, "you will find staffing patterns were correct at every time." If you want to find a pattern, he says, look at the fact that in almost every violent incident, officers were disobeying posted orders. Bledsoe, for instance, should have been feeding the inmates on death row that day rather than escorting them back and forth from recreation. Escorts require strip searches, and according to TDCJ policy, a male officer, if available, should perform strip searches in a male prison. The incident report states that Bledsoe was asking inmates only to strip down to their shorts. "If that turkey inmate, Wilkerson, had a key, an object or whatever secreted inside his shorts or inside his rectum, since she didn't take him down all the way," says Castlebury, she wouldn't have known.

Bledsoe counters that female officers at the Terrell Unit are allowed to strip-search inmates only down to their boxers, and so that's what she did. She also says female guards escort inmates to and from recreation rooms or showers all the time. It's part of the job, whether you're a man or a woman. Besides, it's unclear what, if anything, the incomplete strip search had to do with the hostage situation. The shank was slid into the dayroom after the inmates had control of it, so it's unlikely that Wilkerson was hiding a weapon in his underpants. Union officials and other correctional officers say that the guard shortage is the more important link. It may be true that units were fully staffed on the days of violent attacks, but what about the day before the incident, when officers couldn't perform cell searches because they were so shorthanded? And what about the many days before that, when a lack of supervision enabled inmates to fashion the shanks used in these violent incidents?

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