Monday, July 30, 2012

Texas court rules heat is cruel and usual punishment for TDCJ inmates as the agency deals with employee heat illness issues as well

By Doug Glass, Backgate Website

A Texas courts ruling that the Texas heat and the lack of prison air conditioning cannot be considered cruel and unusual punishment for those incarcerated was overturned this week by a Texas appeals court. The debate over the lack of air-conditioning in the prison system has intensified in recent weeks, after lawyers from the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project sued the agency in federal court over one of the inmate deaths from last summer. They also plan to file additional wrongful-death lawsuits.

The danger doesn't just include the inmate population either.  At least 17 prison employees and inmates were treated for heat-related illnesses from June 25 through July 6, according to agency documents. Many of them had been indoors at the time they reported feeling ill. TDCJ's own documentation shows that interior prison temperature readings of between 100 to 104 degrees can be considered typical in the Texas summer heat. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards, who regulates and oversees all Texas county jails, helped impose state law requiring county jails to maintain temperature levels between 65 and 85 degrees in occupied areas. But the law applies only to county jails, not to state prisons.

The issue has become viral online, and a recent article in the New York Times  detailed how at the Darrington Unit near Rosharon on June 25, a 56-year-old corrections officer fainted in a supervisor’s office and was taken to a hospital. Heat exhaustion was diagnosed. These instances ring true and often all over the state. Many Texas prison units with construction dating back over 100 years were surely not constructed up to today's standards. For us it's not an issue of inmate safety, it's about the safety of the already overworked and poorly treated staff that keep the units operating at full speed no matter what the weather. Time will tell how the lawsuits will affect the outcome of the subject. More to come..

Sunday, July 29, 2012

TDCJ denies Backgate staffers request for assistance after retaliation and harassment

By Duane Stuart, Backgate GM

The Backgate staffer that was singled out and harassed after the Michelle Lyons story hit the website has been officially notified that his grievance regarding those issues was closed by TDCJ without action based on a review by Region III director Paul Morales. " It was obvious from the beginning that the issues that arose were based on long term harassment and retaliation". Said one of the attorneys working with the Backgate Website. " The machismo of the agency is astounding, how a taxpayer based agency can blatantly open itself up to slam dunk lawsuits from employees thereby costing Texas taxpayers millions is beyond me, at what point do they accept failure and move on?" the attorney went on to state. The case is being monitored closely by attorneys and state Legislators.

The charges were levied in a 12 page grievance action last month. Two different times the agency returned the grievance and failed to address the issues that are covered under the Texas penal code's whistle blower act.  The Texas Board of Criminal Justice (TBCJ) became involved 2 weeks ago and in turn forwarded the incident to the TDCJ OIG ( Office of inspector General) who now has an active criminal case open on the topic. The harassment has been ongoing against staffers of the Backgate since the TDCJ Terrell unit scandal made news back in 2008 and drew a Legislative hearing by Senator John Whitmire. Since then, the TDCJ has basically put out a " seek and destroy" notice on anyone associated with this website. Only now has the full scope of harassment become obvious.

I personally think it's pretty cowardice to harass someone who is merely looking out for the rights of the everyday TDCJ employee and expressing an opinion allowed by the U.S. constitution. If someone in the administration was doing it, we wouldn't have to be in this position. The employees are your best and most important resource, without them, we are nothing and the media sees the bad side. Maybe you should have left Michelle Lyons in place to provide the buffer you once had. It's never wise to unfairly axe the the public information officer that knows where the bodies are buried so to speak.... more to come...

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Have you stopped by the Backgate Message Board yet ??

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Will I be entitled to Worker's Comp ???


By Bryan Avila, Backgate Contributing Author

OK, I’m scared now. Not just for myself, but for my family as well. As I was checking the news on the phone this morning, I came across an article that caught my attention. It was titled “South Carolina Cops Not Entitled To Workers' Comp If They Are Traumatized By Killing Someone.” Needless to say I clicked on the link and proceeded to read. By the time I was done reading it, my heart sank and I thought I was going to throw up.

Here are the cliff notes on the article: Deputy shoots suspect. Suspect dies. Deputy develops PTSD as a result of the shooting and files for Worker’s Comp since he can no longer work. Claim is denied, denied, and denied (from his initial filing all the way through the SC Supreme Court). SC Supreme Court in a 3-2 decision said that officers are trained in deadly force and since there is a probability of having to kill someone, it is not "extraordinary and unusual" to qualify for benefits as the statute currently reads. The opinion also mentioned that five other states -- including Hawaii, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Oregon -- have dropped the "unusual and extraordinary" provision.

WHAT???? I don’t live in any of those five states! I just may be screwed….

Now, I will tell you up front that I am no legal scholar, legal analyst and certainly don’t have an alphabet soup after my name. However, I do understand the ramifications of legal decisions and the precedent that they can set.

My knee-jerk reaction when I was done reading (aside from wanting to throw up) was that the SC Supreme Court in a nutshell stated that an officer shooting and killing someone was ordinary and usual/common practice (remember, they said it was not extraordinary and unusual so therefore the opposite must be true). After a few minutes it got me thinking about how it applies to corrections.

As correctional officers, we are trained in hostage situations and we know full well that we may be taken hostage at any time. We are trained in riots since we may be involved in one at any time. We are trained in deadly force since we may have to use it to protect the life of another or ourselves at any time. But even though we know all these incidents may occur, AND we train for them, they are not the norm. They are the exception, not the rule.

We know and understand the risks that we face at any given time. The job that police officers do is not that different than what we do. They enforce laws, we enforce policy and procedure. They write tickets. We write a disciplinary. They arrest someone and take them to jail. We cuff them up and take them to seg. They respond to emergencies. So do we. The only real differences between them and us are that they get a different title than us and while they don’t know who the criminals are while working the road (for the most part), we know exactly who and where they are.

Does this ruling now mean that if I am taken hostage, and as a result develop PTSD to the extent that I can no longer work, I may not be entitled to Worker’s Comp? What if I had to shoot someone? What if I had to take their life with my bare hands in order to save mine? Since I do not live in Hawaii, Michigan, New Jersey, New York or Oregon, I may not be covered. In these tough financial times where every state and agencies are looking to cut back somewhere, they may look at it as say “Hey! Another way to save!” Lord, I hope not…

This last June, a Correctional Officer at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina was held hostage for over 6 hours and assaulted. A tactical response is what terminated the situation. Simple math:
  • SC Deputy + shooting/killing suspect + PTSD = No worker’s comp
  • SC CO + being hostage/assaulted + PTSD? = screwed?????

Editor's note: and  Backgate Website Contributing author, Bryan Avila started working as a Police Officer in 1994 while attending Norwich University in Northfield, VT. In 1999 he began working for the Vermont Dept of Corrections while still working as a Part-Time Police Officer. In 2007 he left public service until 2009 when he began working for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.  - Note; the views expressed within this article are opinion and do not reflect those of  the TDCJ (Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice) in any way. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

TDCJ reducing medical clinic hours on some prison units to save money


By Max Rodriguez, Backgate Website

The Texas Senate's finance committee met Monday at the capitol to discuss the ongoing funding of prison medical services. Texas Tech University, along with the University of Texas medical branch service the medical needs of the agency, but for how much longer ? Chairman of the finance committee, Senator Steve Ogden stated that the state foresees a shortfall of at least $58 million dollars when it comes to paying for prison healthcare. The prison healthcare contract for TDCJ isn't set to expire until the 2013 Legislative session and Ogden hopes for changes or clarity by then. " There is no crisis at the moment" said Ogden.

 UTMB was said to be the only provider that was unhappy with the current contract, Texas Tech states they are fine as is under the current contract even though they too have had to reduce staffing and work hours to save money. Staff on hand at the hearings from both providers stated that in some cases clinic hours have been cut by as much as 50% on some units.  12- hour facilities have scaled back to 8 -hours. Weekend manned medical departments are now closed on weekends.

University of Texas Medical Branch, Dr. Owen Murray, said that because of staffing cuts guards are now expected to help make medical decisions that nurses and doctors once made."Is this headed the same direction as the agency was in the 80's and early 90's where inmates were the nurses and Officers were acting doctors? When line staff are forced to be evaluating doctors and decide who gets medical care after hours and who doesn't it makes for increased liability for staff. Senator Whitmire agreed that line staff should not have to be responsible to make medical decisions after hours. Whitmire also brought up the fact that one TDCJ offender has been comatose for sometime, will not recover, and the state spends 2 million a year in medical care for that offender. He said he would much rather spend the money on TDCJ staffing or border security then to keep that offender alive.

The taste of Federal mandate issued by Judge William Wayne Justice years back lingers in the mouths of those who have been around awhile. Let's just hope that cuts in medical services doesn't put us back under those mandates that are sure to encompass more then just healthcare if the feds have their way. One alternative the committee heard was outsourcing medical care to a private company. Corizon Health Care based in Nashville, presented a ten minute presentation to the committee on the savings a private medical care company can provide to state government. We will see how it turns out.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Senator Whitmire makes statement to Backgate regarding ex-TDCJ PIO Michelle Lyons

By Doug Glass, Backgate Website

Weeks after our last story regarding the departure of TDCJ public information officer Michelle Lyons, and how it was facilitated by the agency hierarchy and her firing back with a federal lawsuit, State Senator John Whitmire has once again spoken. Lyons, who was allegedly targeted and unfairly disciplined by the agency after what she states was whistle blowing, and doing the right thing, stated that she was told by agency admin not to funnel any information while she was PIO to Whitmire's office. Whitmire serves as the chairman of the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee and ultimately oversees the agency as far as legislative powers go.

Weeks after Lyons was no longer employed by the agency, a reporter from a Houston based press outlet sat down with Whitmire for another story, but mentioned the ordeal with Lyons. Whitmire allegedly stated to that reporter that Lyons "should have been fired years ago" and that he himself had witnessed her during a meeting he attended being " rude, and disinterested while smacking her gum." Well, of course we went to Lyons for her side of the issue. Lyons says the only meeting she ever attended with Whitmire was at a local Houston news shoot and story at the Carol Vance unit in Sugarland that dealt with a church based program. Whitmire was present, but not offender family members. When we contacted Whitmire for his take, he stood his ground. He stated in a voice mail phone message to the Backgate that Michelle was rude to the offender family members as she was disinterested and acted as if she didn't want to be there.

When we spoke to his office prior to his phone call, we let him know that Ms. Lyons found his account of the ordeal not only untrue, but slanderous. In his response to us via voice mail, Whitmire adds that he stands by his statements regarding Ms. Lyons, and at one point stated " bring it on"  (legally if need be) in regards to Lyon's claim that he was slanderous in his account. He left no mention as to whether or not he actually stated that she should have been fired "way back." Ms. Lyons did state that she recalls to have been ill during that meeting at the Vance unit, and that she had high fever. She further stated that she was never chastised by her supervisor (Bryan Collier) who was also present at the meeting and never knew she was seen as rude.

It seems to be a stalemate, but at least we have the story as represented by both sides. We don't know first hand, and have no dog in that fight. If he did state that she should have been fired long ago, he was out of line to state that publicly in any regard. In the end, I believe like most that TDCJ did harass and retaliate against Lyons due to her cooperation with this website in providing public information as we requested it, and by reporting a time keeping issue within the department. We supplied the information she provided us, as do many other information outlets, to thousands of people all over the state. Social media is the new TV, print and radio news. Senator Whitmire has long been an Alli of this website and has assisted in many ways over the years. Although we would like to give him the benefit of the doubt in this instance, a bit more investigation should have been conducted by his office into why TDCJ wants him out of the loop, rather then why Lyons acted disinterested in hearing an offender's family speak at a photo op. I mean after all, he is the Senate lead over Criminal Justice, and the agency has bigger corrupted fish to fry.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A VIP day in Region III brings in visitors...

Governor Perry, Sen. Whitmire, Sen. Patrick - photo via Senator Patrick

By Duane Stuart, Backgate Website

Region III had some visitors today. The Darrington unit in Rosharon hosted Governor Rick Perry who briefly ducked in under the radar to see the new faith based program in action there. Also, Texas Senator John Whitmire, who heads the criminal justice committee, visited the Clemens unit in Brazoria to take a look at the Youthful Offender Program. Both stops were planned and had been in the works for sometime. Perry was introduced to the faith based program that includes a seminary. The seminary program is based off of the one that has been in place for years at the Angola state prison in Louisiana. Senator Whitmire, along with Senator Dan Patrick were instrumental in bringing the program to Texas after it saw great success in Louisiana.

John Whitmire
Senator Whitmire toured the Clemens unit, established in 1893, to take a look at the Youthful Offender Program which has been in place there since 1996. The program takes youths (aged 14-17)  that were certified to stand trial as adults and sentenced to adult prison terms and places them in an adult facility to serve there time. The youths are said to be separated from the adult population but actually partake in school, church services and other functions together. The TJJD ( The newly formed Texas Juvenile Justice Dept.) who is also overseen by Whitmire, is trying to gather information on the program to see if it is still feasible to house juveniles within an adult facility. Studies conducted by the Texas Bar Association, as well as some other notable groups, have done studies that indicate that the atmosphere within an adult facility of that type is not acceptable in rehabilitating the youths. Gang pressures from the adult offenders and poorly structured programs were some of the issues noted in the reports.

As we printed in another article just weeks ago, the Officers assigned to the Clemens unit are against the program being located there and indicated that it is poorly managed and the offenders present a danger to staff. Many of the offenders assigned to the program have violent histories or are violent now stated one staff member that emailed us. I have to agree. It seems a bit useless to put these kids in proximity to adult offenders. Although they are housed separate, they can easily talk to the adult offenders, see the adult offenders, and are exposed to adult gangs and their violence on each other. It's kind of a peer pressure situation. They have to act out to impress or keep up with the adult offender population. They really need to be housed all together separately within a TJJD facility where they have access to those types of juvenile programs. There is NO chance of rehabilitation within their current facility. All they are doing is learning from the adults that have been in and out of prisons there entire lives. Based on emails from Clemens employees, their hopes are that they be moved to a more effective environment that is also more controlled and secure. We will see what happens in coming months as the committee makes its determination.