Unnecessary Roughness

Inmate Mark Knox claims Texas prison guards brutalized him. The ACLU fears that in an expanding and unwieldy TDCJ system Knox is far from alone.

 See also Lauren Kern's companion article, "Job Insecurity."

At five feet nine inches and 125 pounds, 23-year-old Mark Knox is slender, fair and redheaded, with a somewhat effeminate look about him, one that belies a history of violence and mental trouble. But by most accounts, Knox is one twisted little dude.

At the age of 14, he was shot in the stomach by his girlfriend. Two years later Knox was certified as an adult and was sentenced to 55 years in prison for raping a woman at fork-point in Wise County, northwest of Fort Worth. Prior to his conviction, Knox's family had committed him to mental hospitals at least a half dozen times.

Williams's keepsake moments: Giving rabbit ears to a passed-out inmate.
Williams's keepsake moments: Giving rabbit ears to a passed-out inmate.
Williams's keepsake moments: Giving rabbit ears to a passed-out inmate.
Williams's keepsake moments: Giving rabbit ears to a passed-out inmate.

In prison Knox exhibited aberrant sexual behavior; apparently he has a thing for tormenting prison nurses by masturbating in front of them. According to a memo in a Texas Department of Criminal Justice Internal Affairs Division file on the inmate, Knox seemed to get special pleasure from tormenting one particular nurse, Melissa Franks, by jerking off when she walked past his cell on medical rounds at the Estelle High Security Unit near Huntsville. By May 1999 three TDCJ guards may have had enough of Knox's routine when they allegedly decided to take matters into their own hands, so to speak, and mete out some jailhouse justice.

That month two guards escorted Knox from his solitary confinement cell at the Estelle High Security Unit to a secure medical holding area no bigger than a closet. Knox ostensibly was taken there to have an injured finger examined. But following the examination, Knox claims, guards shoved him to the floor, and three of them then struck him repeatedly in the face with their closed fists. One of the three also hit him with a nightstick, and a fourth kicked him in the face. Knox filed complaints against his keepers with prison officials, but neither Knox nor two of the guards was ever interviewed by TDCJ Internal Affairs. However, assault charges eventually were filed against Knox, not the guards.

While the prison brass obviously doesn't officially condone excessive use of force by guards, critics say they tolerate it and, worse, help cover it up by conducting investigations designed to clear their officers of wrongdoing. It is, prison reformers claim, a scenario that's played out over and over again in TDCJ: Inmates, some of whom admittedly are sorry excuses for human beings, are assaulted by guards -- some of whom are just as thuggish as the inmates they are hired to watch over. The state's Special Prosecutor's Office then files charges against the inmates, who are represented by an understaffed and outgunned State Counsel for Offenders Office, a public defenders office for prisoners whose budget is controlled by TDCJ. The result is that in most cases prisoners are found guilty and end up with more time added to their sentences.

In early 1999 the Houston office of the American Civil Liberties Union reported to the organization's state office that it had recently received a larger-than-ordinary number of complaints from prisoners about guard brutality -- particularly at the Estelle High Security Unit. One of TDCJ's "super seg" units, the Estelle High Security Unit was designed in response to escalating prison violence. Inmates there are housed behind solid steel doors 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, with an hour in a caged recreation yard as their only break. Estelle High Security is home to the system's most violent offenders as well as inmates who purposely became discipline problems in hopes of being placed in solitary confinement to avoid becoming another inmate's bitch.

In his ruling in the landmark lawsuit Ruiz v. Estelle, U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice addressed the systematic constitutional shortcomings of Texas prisons. In his most recent decree, issued March 1, 1999, Justice noted that the reported incidences of use of force by guards in TDCJ had declined. In 1992 there were 122.2 incidents per 1,000 inmates. By 1998 that ratio had dropped to 56.3 incidents per 1,000 inmates. However, those numbers are based on TDCJ's general population; at administrative segregation units like Estelle High Security, the numbers are more alarming: 93 incidents per 1,000 inmates in 1998, or almost double the general population ratio.

Inmate letters to the ACLU seemed to bear out those numbers. After reviewing several of the prisoner complaints, state ACLU officials contacted the organization's Dallas chapter about recruiting private-sector lawyers to go to Estelle and investigate the charges. Attorneys Bruce Anton and Yolanda Torres agreed to take the assignment. On May 27, Torres, an attorney three years out of Southern Methodist University's law school, drove from Dallas to the Estelle High Security Unit and began interviewing prisoners who had written to the ACLU. Most, she recalls, had interesting stories, but most were secondhand accounts. Toward the end of the day, one prisoner finally told Torres that he knew of an inmate -- Knox -- who had just been beaten a couple of days earlier, and that he looked really bad. A few minutes later Knox was brought into the interview area. Torres was shocked by what she saw.

"He looked horrible," recalls Torres. "I've never seen anyone beaten so badly. The right side of his face, his eye area and his cheek were just all black. It was blacker than any black I've ever seen before, much less on a face. He had red marks on his forehead, and the other side of his face was discolored. It was horrifying."

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