Saturday, September 29, 2012

TDCJ now says " Having a friend on facebook thats a current or former inmate does not constitute a breach of security." After Backgate story thats now viral.

UPDATE: Story now trending on Yahoo, See the video story HERE! 

By Tonya Peters, Backgate Website

Just over a week ago, the Backgate broke the story of a then Huntsville unit Sergeant who was terminated after unit officials found him to be "friended" on facebook by a current inmate. That inmate was a friend long before incarceration. Heath Lara, the Sergeant in question did a little investigating of his own and found several other staff members on the same inmate's facebook friends list. Including TDCJ CFO Jerry McGinty.

 Lara was then of course re-instated during mediation, undoubtedly to avoid having to recruit a new TDCJ CFO. The story was picked up by The Houston Press, the Associated Press, and the Austin American Statesman among others. Many others out there have not been as lucky. They are still unemployed after run ins dealing with social media issues and free speech. I suspect many of them may just have a valid suit to file against the TDCJ after the latest issues. You can see the Statesman story HERE. And also the Associated Press article HERE. Keep the stories coming. Check out our story that started it all from back in April HERE.Or our breaking story from last week that lead to it all HERE.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Houston Press, others pick up on TDCJ facebook issues

By Doug Glass, Backgate Website

The Houston Press has published a story on their website about the ongoing issues TDCJ employees are facing regarding their privacy rights as it pertains to social media. This comes after our published story on the same issues just days ago. It's an issue that won't die soon, and many main stream media sources are interested in how it all plays out.  See the Houston Press Article HERE !

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hunstville Unit facebook termination wiped off the record after admin caught in same net

Huntsville Unit

By Doug Glass, Backgate Website

Some weeks back we exposed a story that had come out of Huntsville back in May regarding a Sergeant assigned to the Huntsville Unit ( Walls Unit). We have the documentation and it's even worse then we expected. Back in April of 2012, an investigation was initiated on Huntsville unit Sergeant Heath Lara after evidence was collected from his facebook account that showed he was friends with a current offender on the Huntsville unit. In May of 2012, Lara was brought before Huntsville unit Warden James Jones for the level 2, code 42c charge of "establishment, or continuation of an offender relationship that jeopardizes security or compromises the employee." Even with no past disciplinary history, Lara was recommended for termination by Warden Jones and the Region I Director Michael Upshaw approved.

TDCJ Director of finance, Jerry McGinty
Lara, who documents the same response in every piece of documentary evidence compiled against him, states that he went to school with the offender in Huntsville 25 years prior, and did not realize that the guy was even on the friends list. A statement many of us can attest to as we are not always aware of someone being a criminal as we don't have access to a full criminal background search on potential facebook friends. After the termination, Lara did a little investigating of his own. He located and documented a dozen other current TDCJ employees that were also friends with the offender in question. All of whom grew up and went to Huntsville area schools together and had some connection. But it was one individual facebook friend in particular present on the offender's account that may have swayed administrators on how to deal with the issue. That friend being none other then current TDCJ -CFO (Chief Financial Officer, Director of finance) Jerry McGinty.  As Lara presented his newly discovered information at his mediation hearing to attempt to get his job back, the tides seemed to have turned. In a memo the Backgate received through open records, the Huntsville Human Resources headquarters sent an electronic email regarding Sgt. Lara to others in their office, and the Regional Office. " Based on action by the agency representative, the recommendation for dismissal has been overturned and all charges have been dismissed."

Lara was in fact immediately reinstated, and was told to be back at work the following week. As for charges against the other dozen and the top administrator on the offender's face friends list ? None were charged. A check of the offender's open facebook account revealed people admitting to work for TDCJ are still listed as friends. All this has come up in a time where others have been selectively disciplined and terminated for even lessor offenses of the un-published TDCJ facebook/social media policy. TDCJ has admitted that they do not have a policy regarding use of social media, to include facebook, for review by employees or the general public. A TDCJ spokesperson stated in an official statement to the Backgate some weeks back that the TDCJ (unit level) does investigate any information that an employee may be engaged in a "relationship" with an offender either currently locked up or previously locked up on that unit but that it's not a regular occurrence and employees are not made to give up passwords to their accounts.

A statement that was either not very well investigated prior to being released, or in ignorance of whats really happening on the units.  Over the past three months the Backgate has monitored the issues regarding facebook and found even more cases of harassment, selected enforcement, and odd punishments. Contrary to what TDCJ has stated publicly, units are still asking for employee social media passwords, and if you fail to hand them over you better look for another line of work. So what constitutes an act that comprises security anyway ? Who makes that determination, and is it consistent throughout the agency and apply to all ? Can we get a hard copy of a policy ? Facebook has stated in the media this year that employers have no right to ask for employee passwords and went on to state " Don't do it unless you want to be sued."

Our stance, as well as hundreds of others out there who have emailed, is that although there are employees that are indeed using social media to interact with current or past offenders for malicious or illegal reasons, that all employees should not have their civil rights stripped away by any state agency due to a handful of rogue employees. TDCJ being a state agency that seems to always be teetering on the edge of a potential lawsuit of some kind anyway, and costing the Texas taxpayers millions that could assuredly be used for much more productive purposes.

Most of the inquiries made by administrators don't even seem to pertain to suspected employee/offender relationships but is a way to see what the employee is saying about the agency, or or it's administrators. Facebook itself has stated publicly that if your employer demands your private password they want to know about it. A statement from facebook makes it clear that it's a violation of their terms of service and a breach of computer security for passwords to be given out to employers or anyone else. State and Federal Legislators plan to address the issue during the next Legislative session as have many other states have already done. When does a state agency cross the line ? Is it when they infiltrate your social media to see what your up to ? Or maybe when they storm into your personal residence to look for some missing keys you already said you didn't have ? More to come... see what top Texas Legislators and civil rights supporters have to say....

Note: Sgt. Lara did not supply first hand information for this story, he did not reply to our requests for interview. All information was extracted from the many pages of documentation received under the Texas Open Records Act and are available for review.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Forced TDCJ Overtime and continuing staffing issues ?

TDCJ's top 6 unit locations for severe staffing issues

By Tonya Peters, Backgate Website

Talk around the water coolers, the tun-out rooms and down the halls have all been pointed towards mandatory overtime lately. Severe staffing shortages all over Texas that are only getting worse, and an agency that has been publicly flogged by Legislators and the like for their treatment of staff, corruption woes, and employee safety issues can't seem to attract employees who make it longer then 6 months on the job.

Region III employees are being sent down to work at the McConnell unit in Beeville once a week in what are called second hand, no road worthy state issued vans. Sometimes working 18 hour days including drive time. Is there a better way ? Is it safe for employees ? Add you comments below.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Travel Channel's " Ghost Adventures" include the former TDCJ Central unit in upcoming episode

Travel Channel crew filming at Central Unit/Sugarland.

By Doug Glass, Backgate Website 

The popular Travel Channel show "Ghost Adventures" was in Sugarland sometime back filming for an episode of the show to be aired this week. The ghost hunting team consists of Zak Bagans, Nick Groff and Aaron Goodwin.

The trio have filmed in locations all over the United States to include run down mental institutions, prisons, civil war era hotels, and other seemingly haunted locations. The team are currently in their 7th season with the network. Bagans, who heads the team, spoke out to us on some of what they encountered at Central and said it was "one of the most active locations for spirits he has ever seen."

Central Unit (Imperial Farm) 1908
TDCJ allowed the team in for filming after approval was gained from top administrators months back. Although employees were not to be included in the filming, at least two Correctional Staff members were on hand and gave brief stories of ghostly encounters they personally knew about there. A "hot Spot" for the team included a solitary cell where an inmate committed suicide just a couple of years back. The filming also includes a trip to the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville where former Walls unit Warden Jim Willett speaks about ole sparky (the retired Texas electric chair). Have you had any ghostly encounters in a Texas Prison? Lets here about it by posting your comments below.

Check out this episode trailer on the Central Unit  from the show HERE !

The Central Prison episode will air at 7:00 pm Friday September 21st on the Travel Channel. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Death Row Unlikely to Be Source for Organ Donations

 The Backgate Says: Shouldn't this idea at least be looked at ? It would be voluntary of course on the part of the inmate but being that the organ transplant waiting lists are getting even longer shouldn't it become an option ?

Story From The Texas Tribune;

Before Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon established a moratorium on his state’s death penalty last year, Christian Longo, a death row inmate, started a campaign to allow the condemned to donate their organs.

Longo argued that a new execution protocol that many states — including Texas — have adopted leaves inmates’ organs viable for transplantation.

“While I can potentially help in saving one life with a kidney donation now, one preplanned execution can additionally save from 6 to 10 more lives,” Longo wrote in a plea that Oregon officials denied.

See entire story HERE ! And then comment below ! 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Is Solitary Confinement reform needed in the TDCJ ? Or is the idea just an outsiders view of a more violent prison system ?

An Editorial from the Austin Statesman

Texas prison officials call it "administrative segregation." You know it as solitary confinement.

The state has implemented innovative treatment and rehabilitation programs in recent years, and some of those programs have served as a model for criminal justice reforms in other states.
But when it comes to keeping inmates in indefinite isolation, Texas remains stuck in a get-tough past.
According to state figures, 8,144 inmates are isolated from the general prison population.

 The good news is, this number is a decrease from the 8,701 inmates held in solitary in 2010, which itself was a decrease from the 9,752 inmates held in isolation in 2005. Texas is at least moving in the right direction when it comes to numbers of inmates in solitary confinement....

See the entire editorial HERE

And leave your comments for Backgate readers below! 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

ERS studies employment benefits, updates healthcare transition FAQ

From the ERS of Texas

The 82nd Legislature directed the Employees Retirement System of Texas (ERS) to conduct an interim study of possible changes to the state benefits package. This study will help determine how the state can provide sustainable, competitive benefits for state employees and retirees. ERS will submit their recommendations to the Legislature on September 1. For more information about the study, visit the ERS Interim Benefits Study website.

On September 1, United HealthCare Services, Inc. will take over from Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) as third-party administrator (TPA) for the self-funded HealthSelect of Texas health plan. United Healthcare, in its role as TPA, will negotiate provider reimbursements to best utilize limited plan dollars, pay claims, provide customer service, offer health-and-wellness programs and manage the HealthSelect provider network. On July 1, the Employees Retirement System (ERS) updated their website's list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) about the HealthSelect transition. The following is a partial list of new information from the July update.
  • Your primary care physician (PCP) is listed on your HealthSelect ID card. UnitedHealthcare will send you a letter confirming the current designated PCP for you and your covered family members, and if the PCP is in its network. If you need to designate a new PCP, call UnitedHealthcare toll-free at 866-336-9371 now, or visit their website below, so that your designation will be effective on September 1, 2012. If your PCP is not listed, check the provider search application at or call 866-336-9371 (TTY users call 711) because many PCPs have recently joined the network.
  • Referrals and hospital pre-authorizations will transfer from BCBS to United HealthCare if the referral or hospital pre-authorization is to a provider in the United HealthCare network and the referral does not expire before September 1, 2012. If the referral is to a non-network provider, members should ask their network primary care physician for a referral to a United Healthcare network specialist in order to receive network benefits.
  • If a member is receiving certain medical treatments, such as chemotherapy or prescheduled surgery, from a non-UnitedHealthcare network provider, the member must complete and submit a Transition of Care form, available in the Publications and Forms section at In most cases, members have 90 days from September 1, 2012 to complete the treatment or surgery at the non-network doctor and still receive network benefits. Extensions may be possible for those receiving a transplant, undergoing bariatric surgery or dealing with a terminal illness.
  • Non-network and out-of-area deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums start over on January 1, 2013, and information will transfer from BCBS to United HealthCare automatically.
  • Acupuncture and eyeglasses are not covered by HealthSelect.
For more information, call United HealthCare HealthSelect Customer Service toll-free at 866-336-9371 or visit on the web.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Stiles Officer in serious condition after stabbing by Seg inmate

Inmate Rey Barerra

BEAUMONT, Texas – A Texas prison inmate attacked a new guard and seriously injured him Tuesday. Investigators say 42-year-old inmate Rey Barrera was in administrative segregation when he removed his hand restraints, got out of his cell and attacked Officer
David Logan.....

See entire story at KHOU Houston by clicking HERE !

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Contraband Nerd versus the Contrabandist

By Joe Bouchard, Backgate Contributing Author

In late April of 2011, I published the article called “The Contraband Nerd”. This essay outlined the variety of enthusiastic, talented staff who excel at uncovering dangerous items in our correctional facilities. Contraband Nerd was defined in that article in this way:

  1. A person who is enthusiastically and diligently engaged in discovering unusual uses for ordinary items,
  2. A focused corrections professional who strives to understand contraband control methods and whose goal is to enhance safety,
  3. A devoted corrections professional with a talent for discovering illegal schemes that utilize bootleg.
Recently, a colleague outside of corrections asked me about the Contraband Nerd. Perhaps the idea wasn’t conveyed as well as it could have been. She mistakenly thought that the Contraband Nerd could be a prisoner. I suppose that they may be two side of a staff/prisoner coin. In the purest terms, both of these would have opposite aims.

This is not about name calling, nor is it about simple labeling. In fact you could call staff Contraband Nerd, Contraband Hound, or any number of terms. Objectively, a prisoner who excels in trading or finding different utilities for common items could be called the Contrabandist. I would simply like to expand the definition a bit.

For the sake of this piece, let us suppose that the term Contraband Nerd applies solely to staff. Also assume that the term Contrabandist applies strictly to offenders. Let’s take a quick look at some of the differing roles and goals of the Contraband Nerd and the Contrabandist:

Contraband Nerd is a staff person who:

  • eliminating danger from the facility
  • keeping safe staff, public, and prisoners
  • searching appropriately – using the overt search to demonstrate that the area is regularly looked over and using the covert search to uncover bootleg while prisoners are not looking
  • communicating finds with staff
  • documenting finds
  • collecting concealment tricks in order that contrabandist can be foiled in the future
  • educating interested staff in the ways of contraband control
  • analyzing trading trends to better maintain safety
  • using crime mapping on contraband incidents where resources permit and philosophies insist
Contrabandist are prisoners who:

  • making his or her stay as an incarcerated person as comfortable as possible – no matter the cost
  • thwarting the efforts of staff to discover illicit trade
  • using wherever means possible in order to maintain trading enterprise or contraband empire
  • accepting whichever trading alliances are available, even if the philosophies of both affiliated groups or individuals seem diametrically opposed
  • getting the highest price for each item
  • bartering, negotiating, coercing, enforcing all avenues of trade
Looking at the two very different archetypes, they truly are like opposing sides of an argument. Members of both of these groups are in a constant tug-of-war for the safety of a facility and all those contained within. It is a struggle that will never end. Both parties have vested interests and are not likely to completely abandon their desired outcomes. I believe that it behooves staff to reflect on their inner Contraband Nerd. Your contribution to the battle against illicit trading may ultimately save your life.