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Texas prisoner sues guards who allegedly planted screwdrivers in his cell

February 28, 2019

A Texas inmate filed suit this week against four prison officials and a warden who allegedly conspired to plant screwdrivers in his cell, then write him up for a disciplinary infraction.

The four former Ramsey Unit officials named in the federal claim by prisoner Neil Giese have already been indicted on felony tampering charges, and one pleaded guilty last year in exchange for probation.

“To have law you have to have order,” said Giese’s attorney, John LaGrappe, “but if you’re going to have order you have to have the people with authority and power do their job in an honest way and respect that authority and power.”

The evidence-planting allegations first emerged publicly last June, even as some of the officials were already under scrutiny for their involvement in a short-lived disciplinary quota system uncovered by the Houston Chronicle. For a matter of weeks, officers were ordered to turn in a certain number of inmate disciplinary cases or face consequences themselves, a directive from top brass laid out in emails obtained through a public records request.

At first, it appeared that the motive for the evidence-planting may have been connected to the quotas — though authorities later clarified that the two were unconnected, even though some of the same ranking officers were wrapped up in both.

Giese’s problems at the unit began in 2014, when he started filing repeated grievances over inadequate medical care. As his complaints stacked up and his medical problems went unresolved, prison guards allegedly began retaliating by refusing medical care and taking away privileges. At one point, according to his attorney, officers wrote up a bogus disciplinary case accusing him of getting drugs in the prison.

In late 2017, Sherry Templin — Giese’s mother — started contacting prison officials to tell them about the alleged retaliation against her son. In the months that followed, prison officials “rebuffed” the woman’s complaints and denied any retaliation, according to the lawsuit.

Then in May, Officer George Wolfe allegedly planted two screwdrivers under Giese’s mattress. His cellmate, Jason Hamilton, watched the whole thing, according to the lawsuit. Afterward, officials tried to get Giese to sign paperwork admitting the contraband tools were his.

“What’s the big deal? I dropped the case,” Warden Virgil McMullen allegedly said later, indicating that he’d tossed the disciplinary charge connected to the screwdrivers. According to the lawsuit, he told Giese to “let it go.”

But Giese and his mother did not let it go, and went to the Office of the Inspector General with their complaints.

Then, a little over a week after the alleged set-up, news broke of the disciplinary quotas. The prison system launched an audit — the results of which they’ve since refused to release — and found quotas at three other units.

Afterward, officials tossed out more than 600 disciplinary cases, demoted several officers and promised to revise prison policies to explicitly ban the use of disciplinary quotas. Now, more than eight months later, however, they have changed the employee manual but have yet to amend policies.

In June, Giese was transferred to another prison, the nearby Stringfellow Unit in Rosharon. Though he has a murder charge, Giese was housed with sex offenders, a move he viewed as further retaliation. Also, he wasn’t able to continue the college programs he had started at Ramsey Unit.

The following month, the four officers were indicted for felony tampering with governmental records and misdemeanor oppression. Sgt. Marcos Gallegos pleaded guilty to a felony in December, and the other three cases are still winding through the court system. Warden Virgil McMullen was demoted and transferred for unrelated reasons, according to state records.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined to comment, and attorneys for the four indicted officers did not return phone calls from the Chronicle.

keri.blakinger@chron.com