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Death-Row Standoff Ends Quietly

February 22, 2000

LIVINGSTON, Texas (AP) _ A female prison guard was released early today after being held hostage for nearly 13 hours by two death row inmates who demanded better living conditions.

The inmates _ who had also taken part in a highly publicized escape attempt more than a year ago _ surrendered without incident shortly after 5 a.m. after being allowed to speak with a group of death penalty opponents.

Prison officials said guard Jeanette Bledsoe, 57, was not injured during the standoff that began at 4:15 p.m. Monday. She underwent a routine examination at a prison infirmary. Bledsoe, a corrections officer for 39 months, has a son who also is a corrections officer at the prison.

``We were totally helpless,″ another son, John Bledsoe, said this morning. ``We just sat at a big old table and waited for some kind of news.″ When the family got word of the release, he said, ``Oh, man, it was just great.″

The ordeal began when Bledsoe was taking one inmate back to his cell, and that inmate and a second man overpowered her, said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Larry Fitzgerald. One inmate had somehow opened his cell door.

During the standoff, Bledsoe sat with one leg shackled on the floor in a small, cage-like room adjacent to death row in the Terrell unit. One inmate had a makeshift knife; the other had a 2-foot-long piece of metal used to open the dinner door on each prison cell.

Security camera footage showed the inmates treated Bledsoe with respect, Fitzgerald said.

Ponchai Wilkerson, 28, faces a March 14 execution for the robbery and shooting of a Houston jewelry store clerk. Howard Guidry, 23, is on death row for shooting a woman in a murder-for-hire plot.

They complained to negotiators that it takes six months to make changes in visitation lists. They also wanted to be allowed out of their cells for longer than one hour a day.

``They wanted to bring forward issues about the conditions,″ said Deloyd Parker, one of the three death penalty opponents who talked to the inmates. ``Everything from crafts being taken to no mirror to shave.″

The inmates also demanded a moratorium on the death penalty because of what they called a lack of due process and effective counsel, said Parker, executive director of the Houston-based SHAPE Community Center. And they complained that there are a disproportionate number of minorities on death row, he said.

Since it resumed capital punishment in the 1980s, Texas has executed 206 people, more than any other state. Two are scheduled this week, including Betty Lou Beets, who would be the second woman executed in that period.

Death row inmates are being relocated to the more modern and secure Terrell unit from the Ellis unit near Huntsville because of an escape attempt by seven Ellis inmates on Thanksgiving Day 1998.

The seven _ including Wilkerson and Guidry _ cut through a recreation yard fence and made it onto the roof. Six of them were caught after guards starting firing, but inmate Martin Gurule cleared two razor-wire-topped fences and escaped _ becoming the first inmate in 64 years to get out of the state’s death row.

Hundreds of officers, some with dog teams, scoured the snake- and mosquito-infested woods and swamps around the prison. Gurule’s body was found a week later in a creek not far from the prison. He had drowned.

Correctional officers blame recent prison problems on staff shortages, poor training and low pay. Texas has about 28,000 guards watching some 151,000 inmates. Guard levels are 1,700 to 2,000 short of what has been approved by the Legislature, according to prison officials.

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