Friday, February 28, 2014

Sam Houston State University Examines TDCJ Correctional Officer Stress

Illustration of hands, with one holding the word stress and the other holding the word work.

Press Release Sam Houston State University
Huntsville, Texas

Conflicts between work and family life were the most significant issues that affect work stress and job satisfaction among correctional officers, a new study by the Correctional Management Institute of Texas at Sam Houston State University found.

In a study of 441 correctional officers from adult prisons in the South, the most significant work-home issues experienced by correctional officers were demands and tensions from work that impact their home life; an incompatibility between the officer’s role at work and at home; and family circumstances that place strain on work experiences.
In addition to work-home conflicts, the perceived dangerousness of the job and family support also weighed heavily on job stress, while supervisor support had a significant impact on job satisfaction.
Correctional officer holding cell keys.“Criminal justice careers, particularly those in the field of corrections, consist of unique daily challenges,” said Dr. Gaylene Armstrong, co-author of the study. “The demands on correctional employees are numerous, including monitoring a challenging population in a confined space, shift work, and an ongoing potential for danger. All of these aspects contribute to the challenges of successfully balancing demands between work and family life.”
The study recommended training supervisory staff to maintain an open, yet professionally driven, line of communication with employees about family matters and work demands.
“It is critical for supervisors to take notice of the emotional and cognitive state of their subordinates to ensure a high level of job performance and professionalism,” Dr. Armstrong said. “Not only are desperate or unhappy employees likely to exhibit emotional distress via job burnout, the odds of compromised decision making is also at stake.”
Crossword puzzle featuring synonyms for help.To assist in the effort, CMIT developed a brochure for correctional officers to recognize the signs of stress and to find ways to address those issues. Stress can manifest itself in several ways, including memory problems, anxiety, racing thoughts, moodiness or irritability, agitation, depression, physical aches and pains, changes in sleep patterns or appetite, isolation, or increased use of drugs or alcohol.

The pamphlet offered several ways to reduce stress, including:
  • Exercise regularly and maintain proper nutrition
  • Use meditation and other relaxation techniques as part of your daily schedule
  • Reach out to co-workers, friends and family
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol; the reliefs from such self-medication are only temporary
  • Make a point to do something enjoyable every day
  • Be sure to get enough sleep
  • Use the confidential Employee Assistance Program.

For more information about the study, contact Liz Berger at CMIT at (936) 294-1705 or at

US Senate Holds Hearing on Solitary Confinement / Will TDCJ Dial Back use of AD Segregation?

By Staff Reporter
Austin, Texas 
Tuesday the US Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee held a hearing titled "Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences."  Below is some of testimony submitted to the US Senate Committee:

"We owe it to correctional officers who put their lives on the line every day to do everything we can to protect their safety. Make no mistake, that means that some dangerous inmates must be held in segregated housing. But we also should learn from states like Maine and Mississippi, which have reduced violence in their prisons by reducing the overuse of solitary confinement."

              - Senator Dick Durbin
           Statement by Chairman Durbin

"One of the most stunning examples of downsizing solitary confinement comes from Mississippi. In 2007, Mississippi had 1,300 inmates in solitary confinement while today there are only 300.  This downsizing has saved Mississippi taxpayers $6 million, because solitary confinement costs $102 per day compared to $42 a day for inmates in the general population.   Most importantly, violence within Mississippi’s prisons and the recidivism rate upon release are both down, with violence dropping nearly 70 percent."
        - Marc Levin (Conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation)
                  View Marc's Testimony Here

"No one, no matter how horrible the crimes for which they have been convicted, can endure this lack of stimulation, contact, and activity for very long. I saw men lose their minds. Some screamed at all hours of the night. Some just stared at a wall, even when they could spend their one hour a day outside of the cell. Some were drugged to the point that they seemed nearly comatose. Some tried to save their medications and overdose on them to commit suicide.  I saw men smear their feces in their cells.  For 15 years, I watched the State slowly execute many of my fellow inmates before it could legally put the needle into their arms."
   - Damon Thibodeaux (Former Louisiana Death Row Inmate Exonerated After 15 Years in Solitary)
                                              View Testimony by Damon
"The intended use of administrative segregation was to reduce violence on staff and inmates. Unfortunately a reduction in violence on staff has not been the case in Texas since the state greatly increased the use of administrative segregation in the 1990s.
The overreliance on solitary confinement in Texas may be a direct result of lack of trained and experienced staff. A better-trained and experienced workforce could better manage an increasing mental health population, reducing the overuse of solitary confinement.
Even more alarming is we are releasing inmates into our communities every day, who have spent years in solitary conditions with little or no treatment to correct the behavior which lead to their incarceration in solitary conditions."
- Lance Lowry (AFSCME Texas Correctional Employees) 
The United States Senate on Tuesday heard testimony on the use the solitary confinement with six different witnesses testifying and 130 written testimonies.  The bipartisan hearing was held by Senator Dick Durbin (D - Illinois) and Senator Ted Cruz (R - Texas) that examined the degree to which solitary confinement is used.
Marc Levin with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation testified "many states continue to release inmates directly from solitary confinement, with more than 1,300 such releases in 2011 in Texas alone." In an article by Mike Ward (Austin American Statesman / ) Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman stated "that in 2013, 1,243 felons were released directly from solitary confinement to the streets — including 500 who served their entire sentence and 743 who were released on various forms of parole supervision. Statistics weren’t immediately available on how many of those convicts had come back to prison for new crimes." 
Levin pointed out in his testimony "The average American may understandably wonder, if an inmate is too dangerous for the general population of a prison, how can they live next to me the next day?"
Levin in his testimony recommends enhancing correctional staff training in de-escalation techniques, mental illness, and mental retardation, issues which often lead to solitary confinement.  Levin points out that states such as Nebraska are looking at hiring individuals with degrees in areas of social work who are better equipped to not just respond to behavior, but change it.  Levin further recommended implementing a parallel universe model that creates incentives for positive behavior and self-improvement.
Rick Raemisch, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, who was appointed to the position after Tom Clements, the former director was murdered answering the door of his home to a recent parolee who had been released directly from administrative segregation, testified that "administrative segregation has been overused, misused, and abused for over 100 years." Raemisch recently wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times describing his recent experience where he entered into Colorado's administrative segregation posing as an inmate for a day.  (Click here to see article).
Raemisch announced he would lower the states use of solitary confinement by ending death row administrative segregation, establish a "Transition Unit" with a cognitive course to prepare offenders for transition to General Population, and not release administrative segregation offenders directly into the community. 
Shortly after the US Senate Hearing, Brad Livingston, Executive Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced in an article in the Austin American Statesman Texas would continue to seek ways to reduce the use of administrative segregation.  “We’re dialed in on this issue to extend the successes of our treatment programs to this population,” Livingston said. “Consistent with our commitment to public safety, I don’t think the current number of 7,000 is the floor.  I think we can do better.”
Livingston's announcement comes after several states have successfully reformed the use of administrative segregation including successes reported in Mississippi and Maine.  The State of New York announced last week they would reform their use of administrative segregation.  Last month the State of Virginia lost a Federal Court case ruling its use of solitary conditions for death row inmates was unconstitutional.  (See Article Click Here). 
With national legislation in the works and the Federal Courts at play, states will continue to research the issues of administrative segregation and placing inmates in solitary conditions.  States and administrators who fail to remain proactive on the issues of solitary usage may face scrutiny from legislative bodies and courts.    


Friday, February 21, 2014

Reducing Prison Violence by Thinking Outside the Box

By Lance Lowry
Huntsville, Texas
   Prison administrators and correctional unions sometimes go against what the science of numbers tells us on reducing prison violence and assaults on staff. Looking out after the safety of correctional staff should be the greatest concern for correctional administration and the unions that represent correctional officers. Unfortunately corrections is not an exact science and is often driven by unfounded beliefs rather than examining the numbers themselves. Resistance to change in correctional institutions is a common practice seen all across the United States. In the past refusing to change practices in prisons has resulted in riots and staff getting hurt or killed.
   During the last two decades, the United States had an explosion in the use of solitary confinement (Administrative Segregation) for federal, state, and local prisoners and detainees. Today, more than 2.3 million people are imprisoned in the United States and over 153,000 people are incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. If Texas were its own country we would have the highest incarceration per capita in the world. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States holds over 80,000 people in some kind of restricted housing (Administrative Segregation, Solitary, Super-max). Statistics show in Illinois, 56% of inmates have spent some time in segregated housing.
       Originally the use of segregated (special housing, solitary, transient isolation, protective custody) housing in Texas was reserved for inmates that exhibited the most violent behavior, the practice is now being used more frequently to isolate certain gang members, LBGT inmates, all male death row inmates (regardless of prison conduct), special needs inmates, and inmates exhibiting abnormal mental conditions. Some inmates have been locked up in administrative segregation for decades now.
   The intended use of administrative segregation was to reduce violence on staff and inmates. Unfortunately reductions in violence on staff has not been the case in Texas. Serious staff assaults in Texas has risen with the increased use of administrative segregation. Serious assaults on Texas correctional staff has gradually risen over 104% during the last 7 years. In 2013 over 79% of the 499 reported intentional exposures to bodily fluids occurred in segregated housing areas of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. None of the exposure assaults involved regular general population offenders.
   Most inmates in administrative segregation are often confined to small cells without windows, and little audio / visual stimulation. Such extreme isolation can have serious psychological effects on inmates and can lead to increased aggression towards staff, mental illness, self-mutilation and suicide. Inmates in administrative segregation have little social contact aside from abnormal communications involving yelling at offenders in other cells. Lack of normal social contact breeds increased aggression which increases aggression towards staff who may be the only normal social contact this segment of the offender population has.
      In a February 2014 study published in The American Journal of Public Health found that New York City jail inmates placed in solitary confinement were nearly seven times as likely to harm themselves as those in the general jail population. The study found the effects of solitary conditions on juveniles and the severely mentally ill was profound.
   Most correctional officers are opposed to the changes in administrative segregation, fearing a breakdown in prison order and risk to their own safety. Unfortunately the data is telling changes are desperately needed. States such as Maine and Mississippi have substantially reduced the use of administrative segregation as punishment without an increase in prison violence towards staff or other offenders. Mississippi went to extremes and reduced its administrative population by more than 75 percent, which has resulted in a 50 percent reduction in prison violence.
   On the national level the Obama Administration’s 2014 budget request for the Department of Justice, confirms that the Obama administration has failed to see the damage being inflicted on both officers and inmates through increasing use of administrative segregation, seeking to open a second ultra-secure supermax prison within the next two years. Changes are being pushed on the national level with Senator Dick Durbin (D / Illinois) and Senator Ted Cruz (R / Texas) holding hearings on solitary confinement starting February 25th. Both groups on the extreme right (Republican Tea Party) and left have joined forces seeing the cost savings, reduction in damaging psychological impact, and reducing prison violence.
    AFSCME Texas Correctional Employees is taking a proactive stance on reducing staff assaults and the negative impact administrative segregation has on correctional staff. The employees union has broke against the wall of resistance held by correctional officers nationally and is seeking to reduce the growing assaults Texas correctional officials face everyday. The union last session supported legislation to increase studies on the usage of administrative segregation. Unfortunately state administrators refuse to fund the $100,000 needed for the oversight committee study. Complacency , personal attacks, and ignorance will not reduce the violence in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
   Proper management of positive and negative behaviors is the key to reducing staff assaults. States such as Louisiana and Massachusetts are going high tech with the introduction of mini-computer tablets as a new management tool that can reward good behavior or be a lost privilege for bad behavior. With new secure computer technology, access to streaming TV can be restricted or modified to insure compliance with treatment programs such as anger management, positively impacting staff with less assaults and aggression by correcting negative behavior. The new technology would allow more education and rehabilitation programs to be delivered to offenders without increasing prison traffic and movement. Use of computer technology such as Jpay systems has implemented reduces contraband and allows better screening of mail. With virtual communications, offenders would be allowed automated mail systems that would allow gang intelligence to archive messages and reduce correctional officer's work load.
   Offenders in administrative segregation areas may receive audio and visual stimulation from use of mini computer tablets, reducing the psychological damages of isolation, that can result in less assaults on staff. In 2013 TDCJ saw a 98 percent increase in offender suicide attempts over a 10 year period. With the Texas prison system now becoming the largest mental health care provider in Texas, these numbers will likely increase unless major intervention is done. In 2012 Texas prison saw a record number of suicides with 36 offenders successfully killing themselves. With diminishing conditions for offenders comes diminishing conditions for staff. Texas needs to be more proactive.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Backgate to continue with present format

After a period of evaluation and assessment, the Backgate Website will remain in it's present format and will even expand. New reporters are coming on board, and the AFSCME will provide assistance as needed. We will be back online full force within the next few weeks stronger then ever, and providing stories that will surely gain attention statewide. If you would like to assist as a reporter or assistant please email us at Thanks !