Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Contraband be dammed!

 Please help the Backgate Website welcome Training Author Joe Bouchard as our newest addition to the Backgate training department. Joe writes for many online publications and has agreed to write for us as well. We are happy to have him in our forum.
-Backgate Admin

By Joe Bouchard, Backgate Contributing Training Author

Although a dam has many uses, flood control is probably the most common.  We have been using dams for centuries as a way to maintain safety for citizens. Yet, many of us rarely think of the solid, silent barrier that keeps water where it should be until it breaks. Still, without it, many areas would be very different and less stable.
In that sense, corrections professionals everywhere are a wall of security. We are the unsung heroes in the criminal justice system that keep the public safe by serving as another unseen obstruction against the forces of lawlessness.  
Training is a very important part of what makes a corrections professional effective.  There are so many parts of instruction that make up this whole. Communication skills, self defense and security threat group awareness are just a few of these. I believe that one of the most important, yet often overlooked, areas of instruction is contraband control.
 In my training module “Wake up and smell the contraband”, I outline many concepts and strategies about the common persistence of smuggled goods in correctional institutions.  Here  are a few points about the nature of illicit trade:
·         Everything is for sale.
·         Contraband equals power. It allows anyone to purchase the services of others. Someone who is physically weak, with the help of contraband, can acquire protection.  That makes anyone potentially formidable. 
·         Contraband control is a never-ending proposition. Prisoners new to the system will test it as though it had never been tested.  Older prisoners will patiently wait until classic modes have been forgotten.  With the profit to be had, the lure will always be present.
·         Contraband lords are magnets for those who want to obtain associative power.  Many inmates will hitch their wagon to the rising stars of bootleg entrepreneurs. The more successful a reputation, the more followers a contraband lord will have.   
·         The greater the profits from commerce, the more difficulty in prisoner managements. For example, when something is eliminated from an area, the scarcity rives the prices up.  If tobacco becomes officially forbidden in segregation units, the demand will remain the same, but the reward for traffickers increases.  More prisoners will take risks.  The catalyst is profit and increased power.
·         Old tricks recycle while new inventions of concealment and transport, though less frequent, continue. Seasoned professionals may take note, for example, of recurrent resurgences in certain methods.  One might see the old hollowed-out book vehicle for contraband once in a few years.  Through a career, we see fewer new methods as our collection of known modes expands with experience.
·         Exchanges and trafficking, when traced fully, are good indicators of dynamics.  Documentation of the contraband trail may yield excellent discoveries of intelligence which may later buttress security. 
·         To prisoners, contraband equals comfort.
·         Personnel will find a depressingly low number of all of the illicit items in a facility.  Prisoners simply have ample time at their disposal to compose concealment ideas.  That is neither fatalism nor defeatism, but realism.  Facilities with alert, committed employees and proactive contraband control processes can improve on success ratios.
·         Foiling unauthorized commerce enhances security.
 Of course, knowing a bit about the nature of contraband is just the first step in maintaining the dam that tirelessly holds back the potential flood of danger. There are many search methods and varying philosophies on the matter.  Also, contraband control is not always a simple matter.  It is not just stumbling across a discarded shank on the walk.  When fully executed, it can be a multi-tiered, coordinated process.
 Contraband control is a fundamental part of training for all corrections staff.  It is a necessary component for the safety of staff, offenders and the public.  Training on the topic of eliminating (or at least mitigating) illicit good in our facilities is really a way to maintain our wall of security against the plentiful and persistent erosive elements. Without it, we are really just an aging dam with cracks and an ominous future.

Joe Bouchard writes and presents on many corrections topics. He is a Librarian at Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility within the Michigan Department of Corrections. He is also a member of the Board of Experts for The Corrections Professional, Editor of The Correctional Trainer and MCA Today, and an instructor of Corrections for Gogebic Community College. Bouchard also has online writing clips at www.corrections.com and www.correctionsone.com You can reach him at (906) 353-7070 ext 1321. He is also the author of three books including "Icebreakers III," the third in IACTP's series of training exercises books.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Part of Connally unit prison taken "offline" after chronic staffing shortages- staff spread thin, working dangerously.

By: Michael Williams, Backgate Website

This week 376 inmates at the Connally unit prison will be bused out to other facilities after what TDCJ calls issues with staffing shortages. The Connally unit which houses 2,800 inmates, has been in the red for months as indicated by a past Backgate Website stories. Many within TDCJ blame the boom in the oilfields in west Texas for the staffing shortages, but employees we spoke to blame the staffing shortage on the lack of direction of the agency and the way it treats it's hired help. For months now, the McConnell unit in Beeville has also been dangerously shorthanded. TDCJ now buses in Officers from all over the state to staff the unit. Officers are not given a choice, and are mandated to make the trip at least once per week to see that the unit still functions. Many of those Officers complain that they are treated badly by McConnell administrators when they get there, compounding the problems.

 Many Officers claimed that their safety was an issue as TDCJ used less to do more on these problematic units. "We were still expected to run recreation, do church, and other mass movements with the basic number of staff members to staff these areas." stated one Connally Officer we spoke with. The TDCJ " Priority one" positions were shown to be filled on paper when in fact they were not. That created a safety issue in staffing the prison where the allocated number of Officers were not present but were shown to be present. An act that is seen more frequently around the state as many units are now dangerously short handed.

Lack of pay. Bad working conditions, and desperate treatment from the administration are still the issues that top the list of reasons staff members use during exit interviews as they resign, or retire from state employment. Can we blame the job market, or job satisfaction for the shortages ?

Below is a clip of a story we did back in January 2012;

" For the first time in six months, staffing levels in Region IV have bottomed out to the point that Officer safety may become a bigger issue then first thought. TDCJ reports that back in August of 2011 that Region IV was down 551 Correctional Officers. As of January 2012, that number has ballooned to 710 and rising. TDCJ also reported that in August of 2011 that the state paid $604,000 that month for overtime just in Region IV. In January 2012, that number jumped to $992,504 for the month. That number is also expected to rise above the $1,000,000 mark within the next 60 days an insider reported. There have already been two consecutive months within the Region that the monthly expenditures for overtime have surpassed the million dollar mark according to state records.

The Backgate received word that employees were being forced to work at least one of their regular days off each week in mandatory overtime. Today TDCJ acknowledged that that was a true statement, but it only affected the Connally and McConnell units. The release also went on to say that voluntary overtime was still at the forefront. TDCJ did not comment on accusations by employees that Officer safety was being placed on the back burner as units dangerously short of staff were still operating at 100% even though no one was there to run them. The numbers of vacancies in the Region, as in all Regions, do not account for employees calling in sick, or out on extended sick leave status. The numbers of staff actually reporting for work are even less then represented by the open vacancies. Staff reports claim that Category one positions, those positions where someone must always be there to man it as per agency policy, are going unfilled as staffing is spread thin to carry out daily tasks. TDCJ could neither confirm or deny those accusations."

See these past Backgate stories regarding staffing at Connally;


We predicted this months ago!.....What unit is next ? And what safety issues are being foregone for employees to staff these units?...

Lawsuit directed at TDCJ by Michelle Lyons progresses as media outlets take notice. Senator Whitmire removes himself from the controversy after contacting the Backgate.

By: Duane Stuart, Backgate Website

Ousted TDCJ Public Information Officer Michelle Lyons sits patiently as she awaits her day in federal court after filing a lawsuit against the TDCJ for gender discrimination and retaliation. We heard from Michelle today and she is doing just fine. Her attorneys are working diligently to clear her good name, and to prove that the agency is nothing more then bullies harassing good employees. Something that most TDCJ employees already know and have seen themselves. Michelle sends thanks to all who have continued to support her in her actions against the agency.

Weeks back, The Backgate spoke to Texas Senator John Whitmire regarding a statement he made to a local reporter regarding Michelle Lyons and her ordeal with the TDCJ.  Whitmire stated that he threw Lyons out of a public meeting after she was disrespectful and " popped her gum" while he proceeded with the meeting. A charge that was unfounded after evidence proved that he and Lyons were never in that type of environment together other then at a Senate hearing regarding cell phones, and on that occasion nothing happened. Insiders say that Whitmire confused Lyons with another staff member who did create an issue at a meeting involving Offender families. Whitmire called us at the Backgate to " clear the issue up" but never actually spoke with anyone here. We suspect he realized that Lyons actually filed the lawsuit against TDCJ and that what he said about Lyons was slanderous, so he recused himself of the matter. Recent attempts to contact his office have gone unanswered.

Although Senator Whitmire has typically been of assistance to us here in this forum, it seems he is riding the fence on this issue. We would like to see him do the right thing and set out to find the truth before the state loses millions in law suits over inept administrators in Huntsville. On another note, one of our staffers is one step closer to proving his case of retaliation against the TDCJ after he was targeted after being identified as one of our affiliates here. Attorneys are involved, and we cannot speak on the issue in depth, but it appears that the writing is on the wall with this one as well. These are just two of the stories on the issue of corruption within the agency itself. I am sure there have been thousands of others affected over the years. Well TDCJ, looks like the taxpayers and Legislators aren't amused by the lack of direction and poor management. Time to clean out the attic so to speak.

To see a recent article on the latest with Michelle Lyons, CLICK HERE to go to the Austin Chronicle!
Click HERE to read the lawsuit !  

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

With California de-incarcerating, Texas leads states with most prisoners

 What to make of it ?

 From The Grits For Breakfast Blog;

Texas now has the largest prison population of any state after California reduced its prison population by tens of thousands, as directed by a federal court order. Reported the Sacramento Bee:
California used to have the nation's largest state prison system, topping 173,000 inmates at its peak in 2006. But since a law took effect last year that shifts responsibility for less serious criminals to county jails, the state has reduced its prison population and is no longer the largest in the nation.

California now has fewer than 136,000 state inmates, eclipsed by about 154,000 in Texas. Florida previously was third, according to 2010 figures from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, and currently has about 100,000 inmates...

Read the entire story here! 

Comment below!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Practice makes perfect, and may even save a life

By John Hurd,  Backgate Training Author

Firearms in a correctional setting are a must. The Primary mission of TDCJ is to provide public safety. Yes, promote positive change in offender behavior, reintegrate offenders into society and assist victims of crime is the rest of the mission statement. However, public safety is #1. Always has been. Always will be.

For this reason, the agency provides us with firearms for certain duties. Perimeter pickets, field force, transports, etc and although there are officers whose primary duties fall into these categories, it is all of our responsibility to make sure that we know how to use firearms properly. We never know when we may be in the position that we may have to use them.

During the course of my career, I have heard staff say that they don’t know how to use the firearms that we have. This just makes me shake my head and say “I can’t believe this.” When I ask why they don’t know, the answer that I get is almost always the same: “Well I only touch it during In-Service.” Are you kidding me???

Law Enforcement Officers, in most agencies, only go to the range once a year to qualify. Some may go more often but for the most part, it’s once a year, JUST LIKE US. Yet they know how to use the weapon. Their life depends on it? Yes, but so does ours. I may not have the luxury of working a picket, transportation or in the field but guess what? My life also depends on it.

Yes, for most of us we only get a chance to use them at In-Service, but that is no excuse. Last time that I checked it was part of our job description to know how to use firearms and show proficiency, not expert knowledge, but proficiency with them. Know how to load the weapon, unload the weapon, perform a safety check on the weapon, and be able to shoot. Qualifying with firearms during In-Service is not just shoot. It means that we have to show the instructors that we can handle the weapon safely and we can shoot a 70%.

Oh, and academy instructors, is there any way that you can let US do the entire safety check? By you locking my bolt open on the AR-15 does not help me, or others, show you that I can do the entire safety check by myself. This way I can avoid a disciplinary for substandard duty performance later on when I have to look at my supervisor during an emergency situation and tell them that I don’t know how to lock it open to do a safety check since the academy does it for me when I go to In-Service. Please let us do it???

Did you know that most academies, if not all, will allow you to go use the range? All you have to do is call them, set it up and provide your own ammo. They provide the weapon. Don’t have money for the ammo? That’s ok, you may still be able to ask if there is an instructor available to help you learn/stay refreshed on the weapon and work on the fundamentals (like being able to hit the target and not shoot over the berm!) I have yet to meet an instructor that says that they won’t do something like that. They are there to help. All we need to do is ask.

There is no excuse for not knowing how to use these weapons. We have to put the effort into it. The academy’s job is to refresh and update us. Not train us like we are in Pre-Service. Don’t have the time to go practice? Well guess what, neither do the cops and they work more than we do yet they find the time. Quit your complaining and excuses and just get it done. If you don’t like it, Wal-Mart is always hiring… 

John Hurd is the Backgate's newest contributing author. With over 20 years of Law Enforcement and Correctional training under his belt, John is a welcomed member of our Backgate Team. To comment on this story, please post below!

Friday, June 8, 2012

What to make of this ? Your opinion: Texas aids convicted felon in training as barber but denies license

From Texas Watchdog:

Texas taxpayers spent money training Lynn Mays, an ex-convict, how to be a barber.

But due to a system of state agencies that don’t coordinate, Mays was denied a license to practice his new trade and, in his words, “prove the system works,” the Austin American-Statesman’s Eric Dexheimer reports.

The dispute raises a question: Why have a Texas taxpayer-funded agency assist a man trying to reintegrate into society, only then to have another Texas taxpayer-funded agency prevent that?

Mays, a Dallas-area resident who’s 42, finished an eight-year prison term in 2010 for aggravated sexual assault.

To help him find a job, the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services paid for Mays’ barber training.

Mays passed his exams last year. Yet the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation denied Mays a license, concluding that he had not been a free man long enough to prove he’d been rehabilitated. No set time period exists, Jeff Copas, a licensing and regulation department spokesman, told Texas Watchdog.

See entire story here !  

Post your comments below.. But keep them civil!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Ex-TDCJ PIO Michelle Lyons files lawsuit against TDCJ for harassment/retaliation she endured after blowing the whistle against the agency

By Duane Stuart, Backgate Website

Well it's official, after a phone conversation i had with Ms. Lyons earlier today, she verified a lawsuit has been filed in her behalf in Federal Court for the Southern District of Texas. The suit claims that the TDCJ unfairly targeted  her with harassment and retaliation after she revealed internal issues with departmental time keeping.

 It is also believed that she was harassed for having contact with this website, in an official capacity, by relaying official information to our site for stories as she would anyone else. Ms. Lyons later resigned after several false charges were leveled against her by Brad Livingston and Bryan Collier. In an email to the Backgate, Lyons advised us that she was being harassed, and that the TDCJ brass were disciplining her for no reason. She stated that in a meeting during that time with Deputy Director Bryan Collier, that he made the remark " We should have just fired you back then". A sure sign of what was to come from the administration. Their contention was that Lyons was what they termed "A lighting rod for the agency" when it came to Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire, who both Livingston and Collier publicly don't care for. Then they questioned her as to why she was treating us like a media source and releasing official information to us. She countered that she believed us to be, based on our audience of Correctional Staff, to be agency employees and deserved to know what was happening in their agency. Not to mention the fact that we as blog with no formal advertisement anywhere, gather anywhere from 10-15 thousand hits per day from all over the world.

Michelle Lyons
It was also learned that a Houston based reporter went to visit Senator Whitmire at his office for some information. As they spoke, she mentioned the Michelle Lyons issue happening within the TDCJ. She (the reporter) states that Whitmire became visibly agitated and stated " She should have been fired 2 years ago, she had to be removed from a meeting because she was smacking her gum, and being disinterested in what was going on." A charge Lyons rejects by stating " I was never in a meeting, other then a Senate hearing with Senator Whitmire, and that just isn't true." She goes on to say that Whitmire, nor anyone else had an issue with her, and that she has no idea where the disinformation came from. Our only guess is that either Whitmire has memory loss issues or that he has been speaking to Livingston and Collier who are clearly attempting to save there own skins at this point. Senator Whitmire may have stuck his foot in his mouth regarding this incident. He is still an elected official and should represent all people equally.

 We broke the Michelle Lyons issues here on this site, and have felt her pain more then once in our 14 years running this type of website. TDCJ is not only vindictive in dealing with employees that speak out against them, but has been known to openly retaliate and harass anyone identified as such. Sometimes for just reporting illegal activity or policy violations. Something that the video recruits are shown in training depicts as wrong, and how they should come forward. After breaking this story, some of our own staff became targets of the TDCJ brass. About the time our story broke, one of our own was denied a promotion within the agency after already being approved as Huntsville later learned of his identity. What they didn't count on was a paper trail, and Huntsville insiders who ultimately believe in the constitution as well as doing the right thing. In that case, a well known attorney has offered services and is confident justice will eventually will be served.

We will not be intimidated TDCJ.... Sooner or later the taxpayers will demand accountability for the millions lost in lawsuits over a TDCJ administrators pride and ignorance. My hats off to Michelle Lyons for standing up for whats right, and not being intimidated by TDCJ officials for doing the right thing. TDCJ has never been transparent as an agency, and Michelle did more good for them then they will ever realize by being forthcoming to the general public, to include us. Like we said before, the agency just flashed back 20 years in how it deals with the public after losing her. More to come....

Click here to see the original lawsuit filed in Federal Court (courtesy of Texas Justice.org)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Is the TDCJ Youthful Offender Program really an alternative for TYC ?

By Max Rodriguez, Backgate Website

The TDCJ Youthful Offender Program, or YOP for short, was established in 1995 after the Legislature realized it had no where to send those under the age of 18 when they were certified to stand trial and sentenced as adults. The Clemens unit located in far South Brazoria county, was built in 1893 when plantations were still scattered across the landscape and private citizens could rent out prison labor for next to nothing. The unit sits on 8,000 acres of farmland, were it produces crops and has a swine finishing facility. Austin American Statesman reporter Mike Ward recently went on a walking tour of the facility with some of the TDCJ brass in preparation for his story regarding the Texas Youth Commission and how it operates as opposed to the TDCJ -YOP program. The attention is said to be connected to the Sunset Committee hearings held Tuesday June 5th in Austin, and centers around the possibility of TYC being absorbed by the TDCJ.

 What Mike Ward didn't get is input from some of the 300 plus employees assigned there regarding the program. Several Correctional Officers sent us input on the program, and how it works. The employees don't bad mouth the administration, and are generally satisfied with the support they get from the admin there. The objections from line staff centered more around the structure of the program itself, and the fact that it was centered on the Clemens unit to begin with. Through open records, and from Correctional Officers assigned there, we have learned the following. Some of which is contrary to what Mr. Ward presented in his story.

1. The Clemens unit is #1 in the state this month for discovery of contraband items, to include cell phones.

2. The Clemens unit, built in 1893, and the add on housing areas in 1972, is basically falling apart from the inside out in the South Texas salt air. Violent YOP offenders are housed in cells that frequently come open on their own due to being outdated and un-repairable, and staff as well as other offenders have been assaulted as a result.

3. YOP offenders must be kept separate from other offenders, and the design of the facility makes it nearly impossible to accomplish that feat on a daily basis.

4. YOP offenders are not assigned jobs, and therefore do not work in outdoor hoe squads or garden squads as stated by Mike Ward. But maybe some labor wouldn't hurt.

5. The program itself is poorly constructed and doesn't take into account that many of these teens have long (40+) year sentences and are housed with offenders serving 5 years or less. Any teen will succumb to peer pressure. The teens come from the streets, many are prone to violence and have no concept of the programs content. Many are continuing disciplinary problems, but cannot be sent anywhere else in the state due to the nature of the program.

These are just some of the issues raised in the emails we received over the past week. Another wrote that two youth counselors were allegedly disciplined and terminated after what was described by the agency as "inappropriate behavior" with the youths. One female counselor was confirmed through the agencies open records policy as having attempted to initiate a relationship with a 17 yr old male Youthful Offender. That employee was terminated but not charged with a crime. Our opinion on the matter is that this program needs to be revamped to include manual labor, and school studies and more closely monitored. 

They will try to enter the working world where many companies don't hire felons. So manual labor training may be what gets them through. That facility is obviously not set up for that type of offender. The program should be moved to a newer, more secure 2250 pod style unit where they can be better monitored and appropriately housed. We are told, and then confirmed that the Clemens unit houses Youthful Offender offenders that have been placed in administrative segregation, but records show that the facility has not housed that type of offender there since 1997 when the cells were modified to exclude administrative segregation.

That would mean they are being housed in regular cells not fitted with extra wire and other safety features for staff. We are happy to hear that the employees we spoke to were very satisfied with the current administration at the facility and applauded there efforts in making the unit safe and we understand that the they don't have a say in how the program works or where its located The program itself is not under the direction of the unit administration per se, It's overseen by a program administrator who conducts the daily business and makes program changes as needed through the office of Madeline Ortiz in Huntsville. 

In 2006, the programs director brought Houston based rappers Trae and Slim Thug to perform inside the unit for just the Youthful Offenders. At the time, at least one of those rappers was allegedly tied to the gang life in Houston and many of his songs glamorized violence and crime. Not the perfect role models for incarcerated youth it seems.(see another related video at link below)


So you be the judge, is the TDCJ really a better alternative then the TYC itself ?