Thursday, November 29, 2012

Author/Psychologist wants your take on TDCJ issues

The Backgate was contacted by a Texas based author and psychologist currently writing a book dealing with Offenders in Administrative Segregation, or on Death Row and wants to hear from employees who work, or have worked in these particular areas. The intent is to gain your thoughts and opinions as to the mental status of some of these offenders and how effectively some of them would be re-integrated into society if the time comes. Some of the survey questions deal with thoughts on under staffing, your opinion on being safe in the workplace, and the reporting of corruption within the agency. They have created a Q & A for employees who fit the criteria to take. You will remain anonymous and no identifying information will be used. If you are interested email us at and we will forward you to them.

Brutal Texas prison gang being taken down from the inside out

Terry Glenn Sillers (TDCJ picture)
By Michael Williams, Backgate Website

Terry Glenn Sillers,49, (AKA "Lil' Wood") is a general of one of the most brutal Texas Prison gangs in Texas, but has agreed to cooperate with federal authorities and testify against many of those who carried out orders under his watch. The violent leader of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas was found guilty of several federal charges including racketeering. His sentencing has been placed on hold pending the outcome and extent of his cooperation in the prosecution of up to 30 ABT members. Sillers, who is from Fort Worth, has spent a lot of his adult life inside of Texas prisons carrying out violence and running the day to day operations of the gang, even from the inside. He got out of prison and was arrested by Fort Worth Police after a long freeway chase as he taunted Police from his souped up Harley Davidson motorcycle.

The ABT's still have a tough hold on the Texas prison system some experts say, and their presence on the street is still well known. Operating methamphetamine manufacturing operations around the state, the gang funds it's operations selling those drugs and committing robberies. Well known for violence and retribution, they are feared both on the street and behind the walls. Originating from the Aryan Brotherhood gang in 1967's California prison system, the offshoot group made it to Texas as some of those members migrated back to Texas.

Another past ABT general thought to have been cooperating with authorities was found dead back in 2011. Houston Police are still baffled by the murder. Frank E. Roch Jr., leader of the biggest faction of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas prison gang, was found dying slumped in a crashed pickup truck, reported the Houston Chronicle. The heavily tattooed 54-year-old Baytown native was carrying so many different IDs that it took police hours to figure out who he really was. Roch is thought to have controlled around 1,500 members of the ABT in and outside of prison, officials said. He was last in prison in 2009, but had a criminal history spanning decades. ABT members are well known for covering themselves in tattoos and Roch was no exception.

He had the world 'loyalty' inked across his chest, according to a custody photo. He also had the gang's shield: a large tattoo featuring a swastika, the gang's initials and a star to denote his rank as general and chairman.

See Sillers indictment below...

Check out this Gangland TV documentary about the ABT. Featuring past TDCJ gang investigator Maryanne Denner.

College Station News Station covers TDCJ understaffing woes as they creep closer to Huntsville

 As TDCJ employees and our little grassroots website here keep the dangerous TDCJ under staffing issues in the public eye, many other news organizations and have also picked up on the developing story. Bryan/College Station TV news station KBTX covered the issue this week. See that story below and add your comments !

KBTX Story aired 11/28/12;

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice admits there's a statewide shortage of correctional officers. That fact is causing some local correctional officers to fear for their lives. To the public eye, the last time you see a convicted felon is usually in court. But after the sentencing, the eyes in charge of monitoring the criminals in prison are becoming tainted with fear. "You don't know if you are going to come out in one piece or the same way you went in everyday when that door closes,” said a Huntsville prison corrections officer who didn't want to be identified in fear of retaliation. Every day he is exposed to what he calls a different 'world.' "You have to deal with 186 offenders in a cell block…There's only one of you, and maybe one watching if you are lucky,” said the officer.

See the entire story and TV video HERE !

Thursday, November 22, 2012

AFSCME union: Governor's office ignoring concerns about lack of prison staffing and related safety issues.

By Doug Glass, Backgate Website

The Backgate received a copy of a letter forwarded to the Governor's office last month that detailed issues arising from the lack of adequate staffing inside of Texas Prisons. Below you can view the original letter that the AFSCME, the TDCJ employees union, sent Governor Perry back in October. The facts are frightening and are issues we have also reported on over the past year here at the Backgate. To date, still no answer from the Governors office.

Here is the original letter;

Letter to Texas Governor Rick Perry

October 1, 2012
Office of the Governor
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711-2428
Dear Governor Rick Perry,
            As the President of the largest correctional employee's local in Texas, I am asking for your assistance in stopping the next wave of increased violence in your Texas prisons, as well as the spillover violence that will hit our public streets. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has experienced a new wave of violence, with 2012 now becoming TDCJ's deadliest year in the last 20 years, with over 12 homicides and a substantial largest increase in assaults and gang activity. 

In 2009, I delivered a study to your office, as well as the Texas Legislature, forewarning you and other elected leaders of impending violence in our prisons as a result of declining to hire professional qualified staff. In 2009, the Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Brad Livingston, asked for a 20 percent raise, also foreseeing this pending disaster. In 2009, the number of homicides in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was zero, but the prison system had the emergence of newer more violent gangs, as well as an increase in special needs offenders (i.e. Elderly Offenders / Psychiatric Offenders). With the emergence of more special need offenders, more staffing is required to care for this needy population with increased medical transports to public hospitals and assisting this segment in daily care.
The Department of Criminal Justice currently is over 2,700 officers short, not including the 530 correctional officer positions that were eliminated by your budget cuts this last session. The prisons further have over 500 new recruits in training every month, in addition to over 1,000 employees on Family Medical Leave Status, Military Leave, extended sick leave, and leave without pay. This leaves Texas prisons with a shortage of over 4,730 officers not present at TDCJ prison facilities.
Texas Correctional Employees would like to thank our state leadership for an improved Texas economy; unfortunately this has left our prisons dangerously understaffed as a large number of our employees have left for higher paying jobs in Texas' expanding energy sector. I would like to propose a fair pay increase to help better retain a more professional, experienced officer and wage a war on the violent gangs in our Texas prison system. TDCJ employees have failed to receive any cost of living adjustment for the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years. At this time I am asking for an emergency cost of living adjustment of 3.5 percent be retroactively implemented for the 2012 fiscal year. In addition I am asking for you to support a cost of living raise in the same increment for the 2013, 2014, and 2015 fiscal year for a total of 14 percent over a 4-year period.
Thank you for our strong Texas economy, let’s keep Texans safe, and continue to grow this Texas economy by keeping us stable.
Lance L Lowry
President AFSCME Local 3807 

Below is the press release issued today to the Backgate from Lance Lowery, AFSCME President,  relating to this story;

"The Texas Department of Criminal Justice continues to remain dangerously understaffed, despite the agency offering a $3,000 bonus for newly hired officers willing to work at some of the most short-staffed prisons in the state, officials with the  American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Correctional Employees Council 7 said on Wednesday. 

Lance Lowry, President of AFSCME Local 3807, the union which represents Texas prison employees, recently sent a letter to Texas Governor Rick Perry, asking that he address the dangerous understaffing existing at many TDCJ units throughout the state. 

In the letter, Lowry calls for TDCJ employees to receive an emergency ‘cost of living’ pay increase of 3.5 percent. He cited the fact that the understaffing in Texas prisons has contributed to a substantial wave of prison violence this year. This year, there have been 12 inmate-on-inmate homicides in Texas prisons, making 2012 the deadliest in more than 20 years. 

TDCJ prisons continue to operate with a shortage of approximately 4,730 officers, which includes cuts to staffing made by Governor Perry during the last Legislative session. Although TDCJ is the largest penal system in the nation, it ranks 47th in the nation in terms of correctional officer pay.
“Texas’ economy continues to grow and TDCJ is failing to compete against private sector employers in terms of employee salaries and benefits,” Lowry said. “The low pay and dangerous working conditions are only driving many prison employees away. If we want to address the officer shortage, we must be competitive in the salaries we offer to our correctional officers.” 

Lowry explained that TDCJ, desperate to hire new correctional officers, is offering hiring bonuses, recruiting students who are just out of high school and employing foreign citizens who are working under visas which are only valid for a limited period of time. The result is an ever-growing turnover rate that fails to address the root of the problem. 

Unfortunately, TDCJ’s staffing shortage is at its height as we enter the holiday season. The holidays generally are regarded as a dangerous time in Texas prisons. The risk of escapes, suicides and other acts of violence is exacerbated during the holidays, when inmates may feel more isolated and miss their families and freedom more. 

“During the holidays, TDCJ employees aren’t the only ones wishing they were at home,” Lowry said. “Correctional officers have to be on high alert during the holidays because there is a greater risk of suicides and escapes throughout Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.”
Lowry noted that one of the most infamous prison escapes occurred on Thanksgiving night in 1998 when death row inmate Martin Gurule escaped from Texas death row at the Ellis Unit near Huntsville.
To date, Perry has not responded to AFSCME’s letter or acknowledged the dangerous conditions currently existing in TDCJ units throughout Texas: this important public safety issue continues to go unaddressed."

See the Texas Tribune story just published on staffing today by clicking HERE !

 More to come.....

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

If not us, then who ???

 By Bryan Avila, Backgate Contributing Author

 Every day we loose more and more correctional staff and the reasons are many: “the job is not for me”, got walked off after a relationship with an offender, introduced contraband, etc. The reasons may be many but the end result is the same: we loose staff.

One of the most disheartening things to hear from new correctional staff is that older, more experienced staff did not take them under their wing and teach them what they needed to know. Any pre-service academy serves the same purpose: teach the foundation of the job based on policy and procedure. Since every facility is different in how they operate, the nuts and bolts of the job are left to the facility to teach. Experienced staff dedicate themselves to this mission.

The days of having offenders teach new staff on how to do the job are long gone. Although it is true that this still takes place (in a way), it is the older officers that should be taking that new officer and training them how to do the job. A facility FTO can only do so much and the training of an employee never ends. I don’t care how long you have been working in corrections, you always learn something new.

Have we really thought of the ramifications of not teaching that new officer how to do things the right way? We have no problem teaching them the shortcuts, but how about the right way to do things. It may take more time but in the end, it’s worth it.

When we neglect these new officers, offenders take notice. It is for this very same reason that offenders will go after the new staff and try to turn them into something that they should not be…a danger to the rest of us.

I want you to think back to when you first started working at your first facility. Did it really feel good to have the older staff look down on you and not pay attention to you? Did you truly enjoy when you would ask a question and they would give you a BS answer only making it harder to learn what you needed to learn? How about when you needed help and no one would take the time to help you? I would bet that there was an offender that saw this take place and gave you “friendly advise” on what you needed to do.

It is this same helpful offender that will be there for that new staff member and try to turn them. We know that it starts small but at what point does it end? When will we put an end to this?

There are many veteran officers that will, and do, take the time to teach these youngsters how to do things the right way and will always be there for any staff member. To those of you that are in this category, thank you from all of us. You ARE noticed and we could not do what we do without you.

Keep the lamb away from the wolf and watch it grow into a sheepdog. They are always lurking in the shadows just waiting for the opportunity to strike. If not us, then who?

Editor's note: 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.His opinions do not represent those of the TDCJ, or this website.

Lack of South Texas prison staffing continues to pose safety concerns for community and staff.

By Tonya Peters, Backgate Website

The Backgate has done several recent stories regarding staffing at South Texas prisons over the past few months. The Connally and McConnell units are still top the most severely understaffed even today. We recently spoke with 15 TDCJ employees, both employed at that unit, and some from other units providing support at McConnell. What they had to say was frightening at best. All of those we spoke to claimed that the unit is still dramatically understaffed, even though dozens of Correctional Officers are trucked in from around the state to supply much needed daily support. Dangerous short cuts are placing staff in harms way on a daily basis claimed many. When we asked what those short cuts were, 9 out of 15 stated that mandatory inmate cell searches for weapons and other contraband are not being conducted, single instead of double escorts of dangerous inmates are being conducted, and that normal operational procedures continue on even though TDCJ required staffing levels are not being met for those specified activities. They all claim to have witnessed this personally at least once. That in civilian terms means that the foxes have taken control of the hen house.

 Inmates assigned there are clearly taking advantage of a bad situation say those we spoke to. Many of those Officers working the voluntary overtime there have since stopped returning to McConnell. Many claim that the money is simply not worth the trouble and added danger in dealing with the close custody (max security) and other problematic inmates assigned there. The staff that are mandated to to show up for overtime from all over the state are not so lucky. Their failure to show up means certain disciplinary action. Maybe it's time for a different approach to the staffing issues in that part of the state. Either pay staff more money per hour to work those facilities, or close them down and move those inmates. It should not take staff members being assaulted, killed or taken hostage to change things. The general public should also be afraid of the consequences of diminished staffing and the possibility that those conditions could encourage escapes.

The McConnell unit still hovers around 65-70 % staffing levels, and that does not account for Officers on extended leave, sick time, or any other type of leave. Booming industry and oilfield related jobs in that region are blamed for employee loss. But many who have left state employment said it wasn't the lure of more money, it was the working conditions, the overtime, and worsening inmate behavior brought on by the lack of staffing and replacement staff not familiar with the unit and it's inmates. Only time will tell how the staffing issues in South Texas will play out. Hopefully they don't end in the national news spotlight.

See an article by The Texas Tribune on staffing that includes the Backgate perspective HERE !

If you have insight on this issue, a comment, or suggestion, we would love to hear it. Post your comments below. Keep it clean and professional please.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Contraband is Contaband

By Joe Bouchard, Contributing  Backgate Author

Offenders come and go, but the shared goal of contrabandists is pretty much constant: To use goods and services to enhance power and personal comfort while incarcerated. Following are six points to ponder.

Contraband is contraband. As you consider the following, remember that though something looks innocuous, it may be part of something larger. Danger is possible through a chain of events or associations. The potential for peril is not lessened because of staff perceptions of “little, nuisance contraband”. Contraband is contraband, no matter the style, immediate apparent value, or size.

Is an item innocent? For example, though gum and pop containers are clearly not shanks, they are potentially dangerous. Chewed gum, applied correctly, can disable locks. Soft drink containers can store noxious, intoxicating and/or disgusting liquid agents. Corrections staff should remind themselves from time to time that everything has a use. Watch your trash. That which we throw away can be used to compromise the safety of those that we work with rather than those that we watch. Proper disposal of items that we take for granted is crucial. Remember the seemingly innocent often is not.

Ingenuity is alive and well. Here is another uncomfortable corrections fact: If we can conceive it, offenders can probably create it. If we can imagine a simple candy box turning into a weapon, then some weapons-smith somewhere is doing it right now in some facility. The deodorant container, for example, may contain deodorant. Then again, it may not.

Out of sight does not mean out of danger. Consider the lock in a sock. If combination and padlocks were to be removed from the permitted property list, an alternative would be found. Out of sight might mean out of mind. But out of sight does not mean out of danger. Peril exists, no matter how many restrictions are imposed by policy. Just because an item should not be in the facility does not mean that it will not be hidden for another time.

Be realistic. It is best that we apply another contraband control law: "Staff should remain realistic." The realism of contraband control is important to retain. There will always be danger, no matter how well we search. Staff who believe that we’ll find everything in each and every triumphant sweep are bound to become discouraged. This is not to cast a negative shadow over the concept. It is, however, a way to honestly assess the general nature of contraband control.

Collect and remember ticks played upon us. If we do not remember where new concealment tricks, we ultimately make our task more difficult later. While we will not find everything, it is up to us to look, record, and eliminate future bootlegging opportunities.

An example lies in prison-made alcohol. It is no secret that some offenders will constantly try to cook spud juice or its inebriating cousins under our collective nose. On the face of it, these enterprises should be easy to find. But, realistically, we are often surprised by the clever manner in which the hooch manufacturing was concealed.

Staff do battle every day to keep facilities safe from contraband traders. Every contraband control trick we learn is valuable, even those we stumble upon a due to a poorly executed plan.

In the end, the contraband search can be very tedious and very difficult. However staff members that are vigilant, tenacious, and realistic will pull enough bootleg out of the system in order to make the facility safer for staff, offenders and the public.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Washington and Colorado legalize recreational use of marijuana after voting. Could decriminalization mean less spent on state prisons?

Editorial by Doug Glass, Backgate Website

Last night votes were tallied in both Colorado and Washington state that will now pave the way for legalized recreational usage of marijuana. Although the measures were passed by voters in both states, the Federal Government may have something to say about it being that federal drug laws still apply. Unlike California, and Montana,and 15 other states that have some variation of the laws that allow medical usage based on a doctors prescription, Washington and Colorado would both approve sales to anyone over the age  of 18 without a prescription for recreational use. A move that both states see as taxable ways to boosts the states income. Not ever having been a marijuana user, i can't say whether or not the drug provides any relief from medical and or any other issues, but there are doctors and scientists who say it does.

 The next question would be " Has the Federal Government been effective in preventing the importation of the drug, and has it been worth it?" Millions of dollars in tax payer money, many lives lost in the U.S. and abroad over the trafficking of the drug. It's a war many U.S. drug agents, and other law enforcement agencies have openly stated we can't win. Others compare the drug to alcohol and remember back when prohibition drove up the costs and made the transport of alcohol what it is for marijuana today. Of course eventually, as history indicates, alcohol made a comeback and was taxed with great success. Just look at the latest major beer label stocks to see for yourself. There are also the groups that want to keep it illegal. Their reasoning is just as convincing as all others.

  In Texas, stats show that many convicted felons have seen the insides of state prisons and jails based solely on the possession or usage of marijuana. With state budget cuts looming once again this session, is it cost effective to use prison and jail cells for marijuana users ? That's anywhere from 50-100 bucks per day, per offender, in every prison or jail. That doesn't include the costs to prosecute such crimes in court at tax payer expense. After being involved in both the law enforcement side, and corrections side of the coin for nearly 30 years, i think it may be time for the discussion to take place at the capitol either way. I have presented both sides of the issue for our readers to consider. Whats your thoughts ?

Is prison love on the rise ?

By Tonya Peters, Backgate Website

In the next few weeks we will be examining how TDCJ employees have managed to get their honey where they get their money. And it's not fellow employees they are getting. The numbers statewide seem to be growing, and it's still an issue that co-workers tend not to report when witnessed. Is prison culture keeping staff mum ? Coming soon.