By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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Ever since the early 1990s, when the state of Texas embarked on an aggressive program of prison expansion, TDCJ has been unable to hire guards fast enough. During that period Christopher C. Williams, one of the defendants in the Knox lawsuit, landed a job watching over convicted felons for the Texas prison system.
As is often the case with TDCJ guards, when Williams hired on with the prison system in April 1995, he was following in the footsteps of his father and brother. But prior to taking a job for which he would be required to control the worst the state penal system has to offer, Williams had most recently worked in the mail room of a student loan services group in Huntsville. This medium-sized man with a shaved head had no law enforcement experience.
After working at several facilities during his first four years with the prison system, Williams found himself in 1999 assigned to the Estelle High Security Unit, where, in the opinion of the ACLU's Torres, he and some cohorts embarked on "a state-sanctioned crime spree" by dispensing their own brand of justice.
"I think it's one of these things where the guards know they can do it," says Torres. "They know they can cover it up."
But perhaps not this time, says Torres, who maintains the TDCJ use-of-force videotape will prove to be the officers' downfall. The attorney points out that Williams says in his deposition that at the conclusion of the medical examination he used his own handcuffs to secure Knox, and that the confrontation with Knox began when the inmate suddenly "came out of his handcuffs" and began kicking the officers. Torres contends that the videotape shows a pair of handcuffs in a pouch on Williams's hip. She charges that the videotape shows a pair of "throwdown" cuffs, an extra pair brought to the cell by the guards to make it appear that Knox had somehow gotten free of his restraints.
"It was complete pretext," says Torres.
TDCJ investigators disagree. Although state prison officials did not respond to the Houston Press's request for an interview about the Knox case, a TDCJ review of the altercation cleared the guards of wrongdoing, at least according to deposition testimony by Tommy Collier, a TDCJ Internal Affairs Division investigator. However, during his deposition this past August, under questioning by Torres, Collier admitted that his investigation did not include interviews with either Williams or Van Buren; nor did he bother to review the use-of-force video.
Torres: Do you understand -- from the investigation that you conducted, do you understand that Mr. Knox is claiming that he was in a holding cell uncuffed and that Williams and Van Buren and Cox rushed in and started assaulting him?
Collier: No, I do not.
Torres: That is in fact, what Mr. Knox claims. Now you told me last deposition that you didn't -- the only two people involved in -- the only two people that you haven't interviewed are Mr. Williams and Mr. Van Buren. Do you remember that?
Collier: Yes, I do.
Torres: Is that still accurate?
Collier: That is accurate.
Torres: Are you still attempting to interview them?
Collier: No, I'm not.
Torres: And why not?
Collier: My case has been finalized and turned in.
Torres: Without ever having interviewed them?
Later during the deposition, Collier also admitted not only that he had not talked to Knox or two of the four guards involved in the alleged assault, but also that he had initiated his investigation with a mind-set of proving Knox, not the guards, was guilty. Additionally Collier testified that he was unaware of the theory of the throwdown cuffs, although the investigator indicated that if there were such an allegation, he would consider it noteworthy.
"If [Williams] said he only had one pair of handcuffs and they were on the floor in the cell and he was found with a set of handcuffs on his hip, yeah, I'd find it curious, yes," Collier testified. Despite being informed of that allegation, Collier expressed no interest in reopening his investigation and went so far as to describe officers Van Buren and Williams, both of whom have left TDCJ, as fine employees.
"The TDC needs all the good officers they can get," stated Collier. "They did their job. They did a good job. They were good officers."
Other TDCJ officials apparently do not concur with Collier's assessment. Since the Knox incident in May 1999, three officers accused of assaulting the inmate have left the prison system. Cox quit to become an officer with the Mexia Police Department in Central Texas, and Van Buren resigned while still under investigation. Jenkins remains at Estelle High Security but now works the early shift, during which more supervisors are present. Williams, however, according to TDCJ records, resigned after prison officials recommended he be terminated -- not for his involvement in the Knox case, but in connection with several questionable items, or "souvenirs," as Williams calls them, that were discovered inside his car during a surprise inspection of vehicles at the Estelle High Security Unit.
According to a TDCJ reprimand form, prison officials at Estelle conducted a "shakedown of all vehicles entering" the unit on October 10, 1999. During a search of Williams's car, inspectors found, among other things, a couple of TDCJ-issue cans of pepper spray, an inmate's wallet with several of the prisoner's personal papers, and five inmate ID cards.