Thursday, March 28, 2013

Report of Mexican Mafia threat against Whitmire a hoax

By Michael Williams, Backgate Website

A report that surfaced last week that indicated that TDCJ based Mexican Mafia gang members had put out a hit on Senate Criminal Justice chair John Whitmire are now said to be false. The information that filtered up through TDCJ Office of Inspector General investigators was eventually discredited after the offender informant who passed along the information recanted. Investigators gave the all clear after the OIG informant was found to have concocted the story on his own as he attempted to recruit someone himself to carry out the hit. He would then turn on those inmates over to the OIG before they could strike in hopes of receiving  reward money or leniency on his sentence. No one was ever recruited, and Senator Whitmire was said to have never been in any danger. It's not clear if the offender in question even has ties to the gang at this point.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Leadership and the Jellyfish

By Bryan Avila, Backgate Contributing Author

I once read a book called “The Leadership Challenge” by Kouzes & Posner which I found very profound when I started an introspective look at myself. Not just as a leader but from the perspective of a follower as well.

I wanted to know where I stood as well as where others stood that were supposed to be “leading” me. Early on I realized one very important thing: I was not being led. I didn’t have a leader and what I really had was a manager. Talk about a slap in the face. Even though I already knew that my “leader” had no backbone and was a walking jellyfish (I had to find out later on how in the world “he” could perform such magic), everything that a leader was supposed to be is exactly what “he” was not. “He” was the complete and total opposite. Not even close.

Imagine the frustration that we all felt. Decisions could not be made and when decisions were made, it was just a matter of time (very short time in most cases) before “he” changed his mind. “He” had no inner voice. All information that was given was regurgitation from someone else. There was no direction to be followed except going in circles and this was not the way that we wanted to go.

Out of all of us that were being “led”, or shall I say managed (and “he” wasn’t even good at that), 90% of us wanted to leave our job and find something else, ANYTHING else. I didn’t care if I went to work at McDonald’s. I just wanted out.

If this jellyfish could not do what “he” was supposed to do, someone had to. Someone had to get the ball rolling and that was something that “John” was willing to do.

We all have our own values and belief system and of course there will be some differences. The differences are always welcome since it allows us to see things from a different perspective. Some of us are willing to take a stand for what we believe in while others won’t. They will roll over and play nice. Those that know ”John” know that he will tell you that your head is up your rear end if that is what you need to hear.

I have learned that there are two types of people in this world: Those that will tell you what you want to hear and those that will tell you what you NEED to hear. There are enough people out there to tell you what you want to hear. “John” will give it to you with both barrels if that is what is needed. Some will call him every name in the book except the one his mother gave him for being that way and he is OK with that. He will even tell you that. He is strong-willed in his beliefs and a true knucklehead if he thinks that you are full of it. Don’t sugar coat things with him, just tell him straight out. And if you have no integrity, get out of his face.

“John” is what I consider to be a true leader. He may not be in the position of leadership but that does not negate the fact that he has more leadership skills than most people that I have met and worked either with or for. What qualities does he possess that make him a leader? How did we recognize it? For us it was easy. John would take the time to help other people out when needed. He would take the time to talk to us and give advice when needed but never try to shove his beliefs down someone’s throat. He would not ask anyone to do anything that he would not do himself. People would go to him when there was doubt about the direction that we needed to go in and seek his opinion. When the mundane tasks needed to be done he would volunteer to do them or if someone was in the process of doing it, he would help out if he had nothing else going on. His actions and words were synergistic.

“John” recognized that someone had to take the bull by the horns and take charge of the crap that was going on around us. It was out of control. We looked at him, inadvertently, to lead us.

The first thing that he did was find out where we stood as a group. The result was that we were dysfunctional, demoralized and lost.

The second thing that he did was find out where we wanted to go as a group. After our knee jerk reaction of “get the hell away from jellyfish!” we realized that although we really loved our job and did not really want to go somewhere else, we needed to find a way to work with jellyfish in an efficient manner that did not involve a sentence of 25-life. We wanted cohesion, teamwork and a sense of value to what we do. We wanted to know where we stood in our “leadership’s” ability to back us when decisions were made and not try to blame us for their failure to do what they were supposed to do.

The third thing that “John” did was have all of us, as a group, figure out how we were going to get there. This is where it was going to get interesting. Since we had not really been a group as a “whole” but more like mini work groups joining together every now and again, it was going to pose some unique challenges.

As with any group, we had gone through some of the stages of group development: forming, storming, norming and performing. I can honestly tell you that as a whole we never reached the performing stage. Some of the mini groups had reached this stage, but as a whole, we had not. The closest we ever got was to the norming stage. For the most part, we remained at the storming stage. Now why did we stay at the storming stage? We remained at this stage mostly because of 2 people. One individual did not want to be part of any team and the other thought that he knew it all and that we were all idiots. The second individual would try to make himself look intelligent in front of the jellyfish but only made himself look like an even bigger idiot in front of everyone else. These two challenges are what we had to overcome in order to get to where we wanted and perform at the level that we knew was possible.

First things first. We had to get rid of our preconceived notions about both these individuals. No matter how ignorant you believe someone to be they still have something to bring to the table. The positive qualities that they possessed are where we focused our energy. Had we continued to focus on the negative aspects that they possessed (and believe me when I tell you that there were many), we would have been doomed from the start. We were not about to let this happen and John made it very clear from the onset that this would not be something that could be allowed if we were to achieve success.

At the beginning we all sat down and figured out, as a group, where it was that we wanted to go. We all had our opinions and they were all written down. We looked to see which ones we had in common therefore giving us our “buy-in.” We set short-term goals that we wanted to achieve, both individual and as a group, and included a timeframe in which to complete it. We also set our long term goals and the steps that it would take us to achieve it.

Since we had accepted that jellyfish had never been, and would never be a real leader, one of our goals was to lead from the bottom up and incorporate him into the plan. It’s not that we really wanted to (at least not at first) but we realized that he was the skipper of this doomed ship that was going to go down in one quick hurry.

In a nutshell, this is what we did: We overrode the ships controls from the bridge and took control from the engine compartment. Since he thought that he was in charge, we continued to let him think that he was including turning that wheel in his hand that lead to nothing. If it sounds like a mutiny, well it really wasn’t. We needed to get the ship back on course before it was completely doomed. Jellyfish had ZERO confidence in any of us although he said he did but alas, his actions spoke volumes.

Slowly but surely we started to bring him along without him realizing that it was happening. Morale started to improve slightly and the momentum continued in a positive direction. This process did not happen overnight. It took months to correct it and every now and again he still needed to be steered back on course. He still continued to be a jellyfish but then again, we know that it would not change.

I am not suggesting in any way that you stage a mutiny in order to get things done and if that is what you took out of this then start reading again. What you need to get out of this is the following:

  1. No matter how dim-witted some people may be, they still have something positive to bring to a team.
  2. Work together as a team in order to achieve what you think is impossible. Nothing is impossible. Some things are just harder to do and will take longer to achieve.
  3. Leaders do not have to be in a “leadership” position in order to lead.
  4. If you get stung by a jellyfish, pee on the sting site. The ammonia in the pee will help the stinging.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Terminated white TDCJ Parole Officer sues based on discrimination

By Doug Glass, Backgate Website

Ellen Mae Burton of Galveston, who was terminated by the agency in March of 2012, recently filed suit against TDCJ stating that she was constructively terminated based upon her race, which is white. Burton Began working for the agency in 2004 and worked as a specialized officer overseeing sex offender cases. Burton came under fire from the TDCJ when she allowed a parolee to sign temporary custody of her child to a foster mother who had previously cared for the child. TDCJ claimed she interviewed the child, a minor, without representation. She denied wrongdoing and said she was acting in the best interest of the child.

Burton claims that black employees in the office regularly violated policy and were never disciplined in any way by there supervisor, who is black. Burton claims that other employees falsified time records, travel records  and other documents and were not held accountable. In the lawsuit, it also states that the assistant regional director (parole) increased her case load, but did not give additional cases to her black co-worker and said an award she received for "Officer of the Year" was destroyed and given to another officer. Burton claims that she was often given extra duties to perform, which were not asked of her black co-workers.

In her suit Burton asks for $250,000 in damages.

The Backgate is in touch with Ms. Burton and will keep you updated on the progress of her case and any information surrounding it. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Smith Unit whistle Blower quits after agency harassment

By Tonya Peters, Backgate Website

The employee who faced TV cameras during an on air TV news interview  just over a month ago regarding dangerous staffing issues and the way the TDCJ was handling those issues resigned recently after what she claims to nothing short of harassment and retaliation for speaking out. The female employee of the Smith Unit in Lamesa went on air, faced blacked out, and discussed how the staffing shortages on the Smith unit were placing staff and offenders alike in potentially life threatening positions on a daily basis.

The Backgate has since posted a story that verified that the Smith unit is in fact grossly under staffed and has spend millions in overtime costs for staff members that have been mandated to work on days off, and extended hours.

TDJ initially held up are request, but after a ruling by the Attorney General's Office, we received the information that verified that the Smith Unit is in fact dangerously understaffed. We will be interviewing the whistle blower next week and have requested assistance from state Legislators in assisting with this issue. Stay tuned.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The story of the “Sanchez Knife”

By Joe Bouchard, Backgate Contributing Author

Many years ago, I worked in a factory setting. It was a shop that provided heat treatment of steel tools such as dies, broaches, punches, and inserts. My job was to temper steel in molten salt baths. Essentially, we applied heated salt to steel as a strengthening measure. As I preformed the associated tempering tasks, I did not stop to consider the simple roots of the craft of metallurgy. That is, not until I heard about the Sanchez Knife.

One time at the shop, I mentioned to a colleague named Al that it was difficult to trim the jungle-like grass from my sidewalk and driveway. Al said, “Hold on, Bouchard. I have just the thing. Let me get you a Sanchez Knife”

After a few minutes of rummaging, he produced what looked like a homemade butcher knife. Its blade was about nine inches long and clearly made from an old discarded tool called an insert. It was a bit uneven and rusty. The blade had irregular dents, as though someone had tried to pound it straight with a specialized hammer. The handle, roughly 4 inches long, was constructed of two pieces of wood bound around the base of the blade with dirty, worn duct tape. It truly looked like a failed shop project.

Evidently, I could not conceal my disappointment, because the Al said, “Don’t judge it by looks, son. Go to the grinder and sharpen it. Take it home and try it on your edging project.”

Al was right. The steel was effective, almost magical. I simply pressed the knife along the pavement and pulled back. The tough vegetation yielded to the tool. I tamed the jungle of my lawn and rescued the sidewalk from disorder. Like a hot blade through butter, the Sanchez Knife did the job.

I reported back to Al and thanked him. Normally, Al was quiet, punctuating silences with an occasional witticism or remarkably caustic (but true) comment. This time was different. He told me the history of the Sanchez Knife.

In 1954, Al started his career in the shop. Louie Sanchez worked with young Al and took him under his wing. As time went on, Sanchez revealed tricks of the steel heat treatment trade to Al. He would pepper in a few stories of his experiences during World War Two. Sanchez served in the European Theatre. He was captured by the enemy and held in a prison camp for a few years. He told Al that he and other imprisoned Allied troops acquired steel occasionally, despite the efforts to the contrary of their captors. They sometimes hardened the steel by using water, heat, and salt.

After the war, Sanchez brought his knife making abilities to the shop and crafted blades for heavy-duty use for his friends and colleagues. I never met Mr. Sanchez, as he left prior to my arrival. Al has since passed. I never got to ask him if the Sanchez Knife that he gave to me in the 1980’s was a “Louie Original”. I like to think that it was crafted by Mr. Sanchez.

My life’s path veered away from the steel shop. I started a job in a maximum security prison as a librarian. Training, stories, and other factors made me aware of contraband and security-conscious. However, when I saw my first prison-made knife, I could only think about Sanchez’s experiences. I am not a believer of mysticism. But the eerie foreshadowing of my corrections career in the steel shop was notable.

That prison made-knife may not have been tempered by heat and salt. But, the tools to do so were available. The opportunities would have been few, but still possible. Prisoners could acquire salt, heat, and water. True, they did not have access to sodium nitrite and salt bath furnaces. However, the fundamentals were attainable.

This may suggest that prisoners routinely apply a metallurgical process in the construction of a shank. I do not believe that this is true. In fact, I believe that this is quite rare.

One could speculate if it any prison-made blade is tempered. But, this is a secondary consideration. Primarily, staff are grateful that the shank is discovered. The speculation starts of its origin and path at the point of discover. In the end, it is about staff controlling tools, materials and opportunities.

The players in the stories have diametrically opposed roles. Sanchez was a captured soldier, a fighter for democracy behind enemy lines. The blade in prison was manufactured by someone who was lawfully incarcerated and who sought to make himself (and the prison) more dangerous. There may be some similarities in the motives. But, my perspective on each of the characters is different. Clearly, we hope for Sanchez’s success and the thwarting of the contrabandist prisoner.

I wonder if Mr. Sanchez knew that his survival in a German POW camp would later reflect in his steel working vocation. I also ponder if Sanchez might get a bit of satisfaction from knowing that his stories to Al helped make me more aware of the dangers of contraband. Whatever the answers may be, I have more than a useful knife. I also have a noble contraband story attached to a durable, heavy-duty blade.

These are the opinions of Joe Bouchard, a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections. These are not necessarily the opinions of the Department. The MDOC is not responsible for the content or accuracy. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

TDCJ back tracks, grants Backgate requested information on staffing/overtime usage

By Duane Stuart, Backgate Website

A few weeks back the Backgate Website requested public information on just how many hours of overtime TDCJ employees are being forced to work in the face of severe staffing shortages. Initially the agency forwarded our request to the Texas Attorney Generals office for review on whether it was releasable or not and refused to release it to us at that time.

 We contacted the Attorney Generals Office and filed a complaint stating that the TDCJ was purposely withholding public information from us based on previous stories we published that drew widespread public and media attention.

Several days later we received the requested information. The information proves that the agency is spending millions of tax payer dollars for overtime expenditures all over the state.The below numbers are overtime hours worked, both voluntary and mandatory, by TDCJ employees on the specified units.

The Top 5 TDCJ units with staffing issues, and hours worked in overtime for
the month of January 2013 on all 5 units:

Daniel Unit - 5,773

McConnell Unit - 7,999

Smith Unit - 10,379

Wallace Unit - 4,845

Ware Unit - 2,763

As indicated, the most hours worked were logged at the Smith unit in Lamesa. That unit of course was the topic of one employees claim that the state was placing employees there in dangerous circumstances based on limited staffing there. That story was broadcasted during a Lubbock TV news report last month with a Smith unit employee "blacked out" in disguise as a whistle blower explaining those issues. We published the staff members story, and have been in touch with Legislators regarding those issues.

 The employee came under fire after the story aired and was identified by the Smith unit administration. She was then allegedly harassed and retaliated against for participating in that interview. That employee reached out to us and we got in touch with State Senator John Whitmire's office who investigated that claim. At that point the employee told us the harassment stopped. See our continuing stories on these issues...

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Smith Unit whistleblower may be off the hook, for now.

By Michael Williams, Backgate Website

In a recent turn of events regarding the TDCJ Smith Unit Officer that came forward and spoke to a Lubbock TV station last month about staffing and safety issues at the prison, now may be spared from certain disciplinary action. The Officer who was shown blacked out and anonymous in the televised interview was identified by the administration and since retaliated against and harassed and received what could be construed as a "bogus" or concocted employee disciplinary charge. The Officer contacted us and we investigated her claims last week.

We in turn contacted Legislators who were brought up to speed on the incident, and in turn contacted TDCJ for their take on the accusations. The Backgate received a statement from Senator John Whitmire's office stating that there was no pending disciplinary action against that Officer. But as we all know, the threat of agency retribution is always present when anyone speaks out against the agency in any way. We will keep an eye on the situation and report as necessary.

The interview was conducted with the employee who outlined issues with severe under staffing, and how those shortages posed the possibility of endangering staff and the offender population as a whole. TDCJ has once again found itself in a staffing dilemma and is now inching once again towards the 3,000 Officer shortage mark it once held some years back. Employees statewide have been mandated to give up days off, and work overtime at a moments notice just to staff required positions. Those staffing shortages have put employees statewide at a much higher risk of being injured or killed in serious assault situations as less staff are being used to do the same job once assigned to more staff. Some of these areas to include Administrative Segregation and close custody areas.

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