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.

It was TDCJ's soothing public dismissals of the severity of the shortage -- "all security positions are being covered at every unit," "there is no threat to security" and "there is no threat to officer or offender safety," officials told the media in the wake of Daniel Nagle's death -- that prompted Godwin to send a letter to Bush in January, accusing the prison administration of deceiving the governor and the people of Texas. "I have a moral obligation to my officers, which compels me to inform you of the truth about the grave danger the officers are in while working in Texas prisons," Godwin wrote. He may be right about the deception: The Texas Observer reported that in an internal security report leaked to the San Antonio Express-News, TDCJ found that up to 27 percent of critical security positions were left unfilled in ten prisons surveyed. Castlebury says he knows nothing about that report.

Godwin attempted to defend his accusations before the Board of Criminal Justice and presented a five-point plan that encompassed recruiting, hiring, training and retaining practices, plus officer safety. But the board sided with the administration, and Godwin was demoted (at the same pay) to the operational support division, a punishment he says is "the administrative equivalent of solitary confinement." He has since filed a lawsuit against the agency and Castlebury. In light of the pending litigation, Castlebury refused to discuss Godwin's arguments with the Houston Press.

Meanwhile, as blame, accusations and lawsuits fly, the problem worsens for those behind the razor wire. Frustrated correctional officers warn lawmakers of an impending systemwide crisis on the level of the bloody New Mexico prison riot of 1980 or the tragedy at Attica in 1971. They wonder which of them will be the next Daniel Nagle. And those who are less civic-minded talk among themselves on an unofficial message board about "laying it down," prison lingo for stopping work in protest of mistreatment. "This is our state," one guard writes, "and this is our state without Correctional Officers. Any questions?"

"There's got to be something better out there," Jeanette Bledsoe thought, before she went to work on death row.
Deron Neblett
"There's got to be something better out there," Jeanette Bledsoe thought, before she went to work on death row.

Jeanette Bledsoe grew up in Baytown in what she calls a "Donna Reed family," where everything was just so and everyone knew what was expected of them. They went to school during the week, to the movies on Saturday and to church on Sunday. But when she was 17, Bledsoe quit school to marry a navy man. For the next 33 years she cared almost exclusively for her family, raising four boys and, in some cases, their children.

In 1993 things began to change. Bledsoe and her family were residing in Livingston, and she watched from her balcony as the new Terrell prison unit went up. She never dreamed of working there. In fact, she didn't like the new prison at all. She worried about inmates escaping and coming to her house. She thought about leaving her keys in her car and a note on the windshield: "Take it. Don't bother me." It was about that time that Bledsoe and her husband were splitting up, and she took a job at Wal-Mart where, she says, everybody in town worked. She liked making her own money. "There are so many things in life I haven't done," she thought, "and I'm gonna start doing them.There's got to be something better out there." She wanted to go back to school. She was 50 years old.

Bledsoe quit her job at Wal-Mart and went on Medicaid while she tried to get her GED. "I went to this learning center on the computer and found out that I was dumb," she says with a laugh. "It was like, "Oh, my gosh, I don't know all this stuff that I should know.' " But she studied hard and passed the high school equivalency exam. Next on Bledsoe's list was college, and to get grants, she had to show that she was applying for jobs. She went to the Texas Workforce Commission, and the first thing they asked her was if she would work for the prison system. "When you're undecided about what you want to do, [TDCJ] is usually where you go," she says. "When you go to the Workforce in Huntsville, that's usually what they tell you: "You need to apply for TDC.' " Bledsoe agreed to apply, mostly because she thought they'd never call her. After all, she was a grandmother.

But they did call, at the beginning of her third semester at Angelina College in Lufkin. She passed what she calls a "common sense" screening test and was instructed to report to the TDCJ training academy in Beeville in December 1996. Was this really the "something better" she was looking for? She'd have to give up school, at least for the time being, but she needed a job, and the prison paid better than Wal-Mart. Plus, she wasn't thinking too clearly: She had just buried her second son. Ultimately she didn't deliberate much over the decision that would so drastically change her life. "Well, you got to do something," her kids told her, "so you might as well just try it."

It was cold in Beeville that winter, and there was no heat in the TDCJ dorms, where trainees were packed four or five to a room. "We just had a bed and a blanket," Bledsoe remembers. "I felt like an inmate. I guess they were just trying to get us accustomed to what we were fixing to have to go through." Instructors taught them how to use handcuffs and leg irons and pressure points. "We had hand-to-hand training, which we would never use, because when you're in a situation, you don't remember what to do," she says. "You just survive. You do not remember anything about which pressure points are where." They also took the trainees to the nearby McConnell Unit, where they could try out their new authority on 100 inmates in a chow hall. Bledsoe was supposed to tell the prisoners where to sit and what to do. "In my mind I thought, "I'm not telling them nothing. There's too many in here.' It really scared me that day in the chow hall.I thought, "Oh, dear Lord, what am I doing here?' "

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