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.

Separated from Torres by a glass partition, Knox picked up the telephone headset in the small room and told the attorney the warts-and-all version of his beating and the events leading up to it.

During his previous five years in TDCJ, Knox had been transferred around the state from one prison to another. In May 1999, while housed at the Estelle High Security Unit, he injured his left middle finger on a metal shard. Prison medical staff treated the finger, and Knox says he didn't give it much more thought. But Knox told Torres that two officers came to his cell on May 24 and escorted him back to a small holding cell for a follow-up examination.

The exam was conducted by nurse Franks. In the weeks prior to the examination, Knox and Franks had engaged in some not-so-good-natured verbal sparring. Most recently, Knox had upped the stakes with some extremely lewd acts, comments and communiqués. According to a TDCJ Internal Affairs Division report, Franks observed Knox masturbating and ejaculating as she passed his cell on May 17. The nurse also claimed that Knox asked her if there was one or two s's in "Melissa" because he "was attempting to write her first name in semen on the inside of his cell door window with his penis." Franks tried to ignore Knox, but as she walked away, the inmate reportedly yelled, "That's all right, you fat bitch. I'm sending you an outline of my dick in the mail. It will have a surprise on it." The next day, Franks received an envelope. Inside it was a piece of paper with the outline of a penis. Yellow stains also allegedly covered the paper, which contained this message: "I fantasized about fucking you anally. Did you feel me? See you alone, soon."

According to the Internal Affairs Division report, Knox admitted making the crude remarks and sending the letter, but his attorney says Knox denies any knowledge of yellow stains on the paper. In a deposition, Knox made no apology for his actions; such arrogance may not have sat well with the guards. According to Knox, after nurse Franks completed her follow-up inspection of his finger, three guards -- officers Christopher Williams, Derick Van Buren and Lee Cox -- returned to the holding cell. Knox thought he was about to be taken back to his regular cell, so he turned his back to the cell door, got into a squatting position and stuck his hands through an opening in the door, the usual procedure before being handcuffed. But instead of handcuffing him, Knox says, the guards swung the door open and shoved him to the concrete floor.

First into the cell, says Knox, was Van Buren, who punched him in the face. Next came Williams, who, Knox says, also struck him about the face and head with his fists. Knox tried to protect himself by placing his head beneath a stool affixed to the cell floor, but the beating continued. Van Buren and Williams were joined by Cox, who began striking Knox in the back with his hands and a set of keys. Van Buren, says the prisoner, hit him in the head with a riot baton. Sergeant Robert Jenkins joined in by kicking Knox in the face. The inmate estimates the beating went on for four minutes. The guards then called for a videotape crew -- standard in any TDCJ use-of-force incident -- and took Knox back to the sick bay to be inspected again by the object of his perverted penmanship, nurse Franks.

The videotape shows Knox receiving a cursory examination by Franks and a couple of guards. On the tape, Knox is a mess. The right knee of his prison uniform is ripped open, there are bruises and welts across his forehead, and his right eye is beginning to swell shut. The camera stays on Knox as he is returned to his cell. As he walks down the prison hallway, Knox, bloodied but unbowed, just shakes his head and says to the guards, "You fucked up, black boys, you fucked up."

And they may well have. Three days after the alleged beating, Torres arrived at the prison looking for just such a case. Four months later Knox filed a $600,000 federal lawsuit against the four guards, the nurse and several other TDCJ officials, claiming that his civil rights had been violated. The Knox case, say ACLU officials, is an example of institutional guard brutality against inmates that the organization intends to magnify for public scrutiny through the Knox lawsuit and others.

"Once we prove this case in court, our contention [of guard brutality] will have a stamp of legitimacy," says Will Harrell, the new executive director of the Texas ACLU. "And then we can really educate the public about what happens in the prison system, and that, in turn, will hopefully affect the policy makers."


Outside the TDCJ prison ironically known as the Holliday Unit -- one of several prison units located in and around Huntsville -- is a large plastic sign that passing motorists can easily see as they cruise by the facility on Interstate 45. The advertisement encourages readers to "Be a Correctional Officer" by calling 1-800-WORK-4-TX.

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