Taking Aim

Texas inmates fleeing the coop might as well pin targets on their backs, under a new prison policy.

In Huntsville recently, the Texas Board of Criminal Justice approved policy changes that eliminate the requirement for guards to fire warning shots. Now, officers may also respond with deadly force, which allows them to shoot at an inmate's torso instead of the limbs.

Under the previous "Use of Firearms" policy, officers were supposed to shoot with the intent to disable rather than kill.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice General Counsel Carl Reynolds says TDCJ staff members who study use of force recommended the changes. Most states have already stricken the warning shot policy, he says.

"The concern is 'Where are those bullets going?' You're not firing blanks," he says. "If it's going up, it's coming down. It's going to hit something; it may ricochet."

However, some attorneys for prisoners fear the new policy is not specific enough, leaving leeway for abuse.

"It is broad enough that games can be played with this," says Huntsville attorney Chuck Hurt, who handles many parole cases. "Where does the inmate have to be when they shoot to kill?…A guy who is trying to escape probably does need to be shot for public safety -- the Texas Seven comes to mind but what guidelines does the man in the tower have to be sure he's shooting at an escaping inmate?

Reynolds says guards who work inside prison walls don't carry firearms, only those working in the picket, or tower.

"The people in the picket would be expected to shoot them without calling anybody and asking anybody. They would be disciplined if they didn't, basically."

However, that has always been the case. A paragraph that remains unchanged in the policy reads, "An officer who fails to use a firearm, when necessary, to prevent an escape or serious bodily injury to another person has failed to perform his primary responsibility."

Reynolds also stresses that officers fire only as a last resort, "when it appears probable the offender will elude immediate efforts for recapture, or to prevent loss of life or imminent serious bodily injury to other persons in the area." And that doesn't happen often, he says. Last year 38 weapons were discharged systemwide, according to TDCJ data. In the first four months of this year, 18 weapons were fired.

"It's not like we're suddenly saying, 'Let's open fire.' It's something that only happens when someone is jumping the fence or running off, or trying to escape or hurting each other or hurting an officer," Reynolds says.

That answer doesn't satisfy Hurt, though, who says he hopes to raise enough eyebrows to get the policy amended.

"I think we're seeing a lot of knee-jerk reaction. And quite frankly, the last escape embarrassed the hell out of TDCJ," he says, referring to an inmate who escaped through air ducts from the Stiles Unit in Beaumont.

 
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