By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
Someone grabbed her from behind. Jeanette Bledsoe remembers it slowly and quietly, although that's not the way it happened. Someone grabbed her from behind, so she grabbed what was in front of her: bars. And she screamed. No words came out, but the dreadful noise traveled through the cell block and down the hall to the lieutenant's office. It didn't do any good, though. No one was close enough to help.
There was only one other correctional officer roving the pod of 84 death row cells at the Terrell Unit at 4:15 p.m. on February 21, and he was delivering food trays in another section. By the time he could get to her, Bledsoe was already being kicked and dragged into an adjacent dayroom. Within seconds, the balance of power had shifted. The caged had captured one of their keepers. They slammed the dayroom door shut, handcuffed the 57-year-old grandmother with her hands behind her back and shoved her down against a wall. Now she could see her assaulters: "Mr. Wilkerson and Mr. Guidry," as she calls them even today. She had just secured Ponchai Wilkerson in his cell and was escorting a handcuffed Howard Guidry to his "house" after recreation when she was grabbed.
Prison management discourages correctional officers from researching the criminal histories of their wards, so Bledsoe didn't know that Wilkerson had shot a jewelry store clerk in the head when he was just 18 years old and spent the last ten years on death row. She didn't know that 23-year-old Guidry had been convicted in a murder-for-hire scheme in which he lay in wait for his victim for over an hour. She didn't know that they had both been involved in the daring 1998 escape attempt at the Ellis Unit in Huntsville, the very escape attempt that caused death row to be moved to the supposedly more secure Terrell Unit. She didn't know that Wilkerson was scheduled to die in only three weeks and had absolutely nothing to lose.
Out of the corner of her eye, Bledsoe saw a bag slide under the bars of the dayroom. Inside it was a shank, a metal rod from a typewriter that had been filed down to make it needle-sharp. Guidry picked up the shank; Wilkerson was already wielding Bledsoe's bean bar, a steel rod used by guards to open food slots in cell doors. They tied up her legs with the bag. She begged them not to hurt her and then started to pray: "Oh, dear God, just let me get out of here. Don't let them violate me in here, because all these officers are in here, all these inmates are watching. Please, dear God, do not let them rape me, or something like that. I, I just don't know what I'd do."
Responding to the call of "officer down," the guards had gathered outside the dayroom with canisters of pepper spray, stinger projectile rounds and two .357-caliber pistols. But thankfully, one familiar face wasn't among them. Bledsoe's son Biff was secured in the warden's office even before the Code Red was sounded. From there he called her other sons, their wives, her ex-husband and her sister-in-law. If he had been allowed to enter death row, she says, "anything could have happened."
Tensions were escalating anyway. "We are hopeful, but not overly optimistic," prison spokesman Larry Todd told the media. Inmates in cells near the dayroom were shouting suggestions as to what Wilkerson and Guidry should do with their uniformed hostage: beat her, rape her, kill her. "Why don't you just start at her toes and just break her toes and then go up and break her ankle and just break every bone, starting at the bottom of her feet up to her head?" Bledsoe remembers one saying. "Why don't you just kill that bitch?" They were agitating Wilkerson. He paced back and forth across the floor, taking off the top of his white jumpsuit and tying it around his waist.
Finally Terrell officials decided to send in two five-man teams to take control of the dayroom. Dressed in full riot gear, one team would fall on top of Bledsoe to protect her, and the other would subdue Wilkerson and Guidry with pepper spray and physical force. But before the teams could get near the barred door, Wilkerson and Guidry reacted. "I like to have fainted," says Bledsoe, "because they just jerked me up by my feet and slung me across the room and said, "If you come in here, we're gonna kill her.' One had the bean bar up over my head, and the other one had the thing he was gonna stick me with." When both the extraction teams and the inmates had backed off, Bledsoe looked at her lieutenant outside and said, "Y'all are gonna do me more harm than good."
If she was going to get out of this situation, Jeanette Bledsoe, a relative newcomer to prison life, would have to help herself. She didn't think she had paid much attention to her academy training three years ago, but she did remember that she should try to bond with her captors. She asked Wilkerson about his nine-year-old daughter and told him about her nine-year-old grandson. "I'm a part of y'all now," she said to him. "Your life is in danger, and my life is in danger. I'm not gray and you're not white anymore. We're just people." Wilkerson told her that his father, a retired sheriff's deputy, had said via telephone that Bledsoe had nothing to do with his situation, and he should let her go. When he talked to her, Wilkerson put the top of his jumpsuit back on and sat down.
Thirteen hours later, at 5 a.m. the next day, the anti-death-penalty activists that Wilkerson and Guidry wanted to talk to finally arrived, and Wilkerson agreed to do as his father had said. He asked Bledsoe not to run when he released her, but when the door flew open she ran as fast as she could. Once she had cleared the dayroom door, she slowed down and took a look around. "When I walked out, it just made me sick at my stomach," she says. "When I walked out, all I saw was gray uniforms.They had stayed over. They did not go home. Gray uniforms all the way down the hall."
But that gray line isn't always as reassuring as it appeared on the morning Jeanette Bledsoe walked away from what could have been her last day on the job. In fact, the very weaknesses in that gray line may have contributed to her death row standoff in the first place. Correctional officers' union spokesman Brian Olsen says the guards are suffering from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's "blatant disregard for the safety and well-being of its employees." They are underpaid, undertrained, understaffed and in danger.
No one knows for sure how Ponchai Wilkerson escaped from his cell after Bledsoe had locked him inside, but it happens more often than the public might think. On March 26 the Corpus Christi Caller-Times quoted prison officials who reported that there had been 1,600 problems with locking mechanisms systemwide since September 1999. This number includes incidents of mechanical malfunction, inmate tampering and, most interesting, human error. Bledsoe says that Wilkerson was able to take her hostage because the picket boss, the guard who sits at a desk in the center of the pod and controls the opening of all the cell doors, made a mistake. "The inmate did not open that door. The maintenance man went over it and over it and over it with me," she says. "Either the picket boss opened that door by mistake, or it was never closed, and the picket boss was not paying attention to his lights. There's a red light on every cell that's open. It's a green light when they're all closed.And if you're in that picket, you better be paying attention, because those people out on that run -- their life is in your hands." To be fair, the picket boss told TDCJ officials that the control panel showed Wilkerson's door to be locked, and that he heard the inmate kick the cell door, which might have enabled him to open it. Nevertheless, Bledsoe is convinced that a better picket boss might have prevented Wilkerson from getting out of his cell in the first place. And there is little doubt that more guards on the pod might have kept the inmates from dragging Bledsoe into the dayroom.
But TDCJ has been having trouble attracting warm bodies to work in its prisons, much less quality officers. The largest state agency in Texas and the now largest prison system in the country is operating with a shortage of some 2,300 correctional officers; some prison units have more than 100 unstaffed positions. And the guards TDCJ does have are largely young, inexperienced and undertrained. In 1997, when the agency reached a correctional officer shortage of 1,000, it reduced training from 240 hours to 160 hours in order to get guards into prisons as quickly as possible. As a result, short shrift is given to important training topics such as use of force and defensive tactics. Charles Godwin, former director of training for TDCJ, says the department also has lowered its hiring standards. Correctional trainees used to have to score a 70 on each and every test. Now, trainees only have to average a passing grade, meaning they can fail some parts of the course work and still go to work in a unit. In 1998 alone, he says, there were 293 graduates who would not have been hired under prior policy. And according to Godwin, "when you have people who aren't ready and you get them out on the unit, they cause other problems."
TDCJ is not just struggling to attract and train good guards. The agency also seems unable to keep those with experience on staff. The turnover rate climbed from 12.9 percent in 1995 to 23.3 percent in fiscal year 2000. In fact, some say the prison system is losing approximately 450 officers a month and that it's able to hire only about 400 to replace them. (TDCJ officials claim they are hiring more officers than they're losing.) Texas Board of Criminal Justice President Mac Stringfellow blames the shortage and high attrition rate on a strong economy: "They can go and get jobs in manufacturing or in the oil well business or in construction," he says. "When construction and the oil and gas business are having problems, then we have plenty of applicants, and the converse is true."
The solution would seem to be to raise the pay for correctional officers. The starting salary for COs in Texas is just $18,924, and the pay tops out at $28,380 after three years, nowhere near the national average of $34,000 a year. The Legislative Budget Board did approve an emergency raise of $138 a month effective July 1 of this year, but only officers who had worked for TDCJ for three years without probation were eligible for the increase. And officers say that a recent hike in insurance rates means they don't even see that extra money.
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?
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?"
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?' "
TDCJ did not allow the Press to visit the Terrell Unit for this story, despite the fact that the agency's media policy allows access to prisons except "during periods of unusual tension." But while Bledsoe describes a world of incredible tension behind the razor wire and locked doors, it's not at all unusual.
She has seen a dirty SSI (service support inmate) hung by a shoestring for failing to deliver the marijuana he promised another prisoner. She has seen female officers get "walked off the farm" after falling in love with manipulative convicts. She has seen a 23-year-old try to commit suicide because he sees no way to turn his life around. She has seen inmates cut their arms and legs in order to get into the relative safety and comfort of the "psycho ward." She has seen the aftermath of a rape, a skinny boy bloodied and "greased up like a pig." Her eyes have teared at the pepper spray that permeates the cell block after an inmate has been forcibly removed from a dayroom. She has seen inmates throw feces and urine at correctional officers. She has seen mafia-style hits planned within the prison walls make their way to the outside world; she never stops anywhere while she's wearing her uniform, just in case. She has been called "bitch, whore, bitch-ass ho." She has been masturbated on or, as they say inside, "killed." She says she has not seen officer brutality.
She has watched as death row inmates leave for Huntsville to face their sentences. "It's kinda hard working with a person, I mean with inmates, all day long and then one day they're gone," she says. "I really don't have an opinion on the death penalty. If you could look up their records and see what they've done, it's kinda hard to feel sorry for them. You feel sorry for them because they're gonna die, and they know when they're gonna die. We don't I just can't imagine what's going through their minds." This job is tough, Bledsoe says, not physically but mentally.
When Bledsoe graduated from the academy, TDCJ sent her to work at the Ferguson Unit, 65 miles away from home. She was assigned to work in Administrative Segregation with prisoners who, because they were dangerous or in danger, were locked up 23 hours a day, leaving their cells in handcuffs only to shower and recreate. "Uh-uh," she thought at first, "this isn't for me. I'm gone. I'm leaving. I don't like this." But there were advantages over her previous job: "At Wal-Mart, you cannot get rude with a customer. That's the difference. You're the boss at the prison."
She also liked the sense of camaraderie she felt with the other officers. "When they go places, they go together, even in the outside world," she says. "Nobody can relate to what we do unless they work in there." There were shift parties and barbecues. Bledsoe moved in with another female officer who lived closer to the prison. Her family was grown and gone, but she had found a new one.
When Bledsoe was transferred to Terrell after two years, the insecurity returned. The prison in Livingston was so much bigger than Ferguson that she didn't know if she would ever find her way around. And she had to hold the inmates by the arm when she escorted them; she didn't like touching them. Soon Biff, her youngest son, started working in the general population area of the prison. They met in the officers' dining room every day before their shifts.
But there was also a less fortunate addition to Terrell: death row. Last year TDCJ began moving the 445 inmates into Bledsoe's Administrative Segregation section because it was more secure than the Ellis Unit, but the prisoners were unhappy with their new accommodations. At Ellis, they had television privileges and group recreation time. The bars on the doors there provided more interaction with guards and other inmates than the solid steel doors at Terrell. Bledsoe was wary. "On death row, you don't know what they're gonna do," she says. "They're quiet. You don't know what they're thinking."
People often ask her how she can work in a prison. "Who stands behind you in Wal-Mart?" she asks, clearly paranoid after 39 months on the job. "Do you know that person? Do you know that maybe that's a convict? Do you know if maybe he's been in prison or maybe he's killed somebody and he's still on the run? Do you know who's standing beside you? At least these are contained. The ones out here aren't."
Jeanette Bledsoe doesn't look much like a prison guard today, nestled in a big recliner in her cool, dark manufactured home surrounded by the Piney Woods of a two-stoplight East Texas town called Onalaska. She seems small and a little shaky, the grooves around her eyes and mouth deepening into an approval-seeking smile. She's more comfortable showing off the photographs that line her hallway than arguing for a pay raise for correctional officers. Of course, the photographs tell of hardships as well as happiness. There's Paige, the granddaughter that Bledsoe raised who died in a car accident when she was only four. And there's William, also known as Dude, the troubled son who died of a drug overdose just before Bledsoe went to the training academy. And there's Biff, her baby, who she worries about every day he works at the prison.
Just one week after she was held hostage on death row, Bledsoe went back to work, just to prove that she could. "I didn't do much of anything," she says. "I just walked around -- lookin'. I just wanted them, those inmates, all of 'em, to know that I could come back in there, that I was not scared of them, that they had not run me off." Some of the inmates told her that they were sorry it had happened to her, because she was a fair officer. "I have as much respect for them as they have for me," she says. "As long as they treat me right, I'll treat them right." Others didn't buy into Bledsoe's Golden Rule approach to prison life. Some told her that they would have raped her. Gary Graham, the anti-death-penalty poster boy for Jesse Jackson and Bianca Jagger, threatened her life. "I tell you what, Bledsoe," she remembers him saying, "they didn't kill you the first time they got you, but you wait, I'll get you if I can get out."
She took another week off and tried again. She was securing an inmate for escort from a recreation cell to his house when the picket boss opened the door to the wrong cell by mistake. Inside was a death row offender who was not yet handcuffed. Bledsoe began reliving the hostage scenario.
"It's your choice," she told him. "What are you gonna do? Are you gonna come out of there? Or are you gonna back up and let me close the door?"
"Ms. Bledsoe," he said, "I am not touching that door."
She caught her breath, but she knew things would never be the same. "I really tried," she says. "I was just so jumpy. People would come up behind me, and I would just all but attack 'em." Two months after the incident, Bledsoe told her warden that she didn't think she should be working at the unit, that she was a danger to herself.
Since June, she's been holed up at home, hiding from the media, seeing a psychologist, fighting back the thoughts that can bring her to tears, and taking medication for her depression. She's collecting workers' compensation, but she doesn't know how long that will last. Biff's been telling the folks at Terrell that she's never going back to work there. And Jeanette halfheartedly entertains the idea of going back to school. But ultimately, when the checks stop coming, she says, she'll have to go back to the prison. And it doesn't really matter what the legislature does next year in terms of correctional officers' pay. Jeanette Bledsoe will still be scared.
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