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EDITOR’S NOTE - Through September, inmates in Texas prisons

November 25, 1985

EDITOR’S NOTE - Through September, inmates in Texas prisons were being killed by fellow prisoners at the rate of one every 10 days. But almost two months have passed since the last homicide, and prison officials think they are making progress; as each week passes, they hold their breath hoping the cells remain peaceful. The problems behind bars in Texas go beyond quick fixes, however, and how the prisons are run has become a matter of life and death.

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) _ Joel Figueroa felt safe. He told his prison guards he wanted to keep his cellmate, a convicted murderer, because he was a friend and Figueroa trusted him. In Texas prisons, where 26 men had been slain in nine months, that meant a lot.

Three weeks later, at 6:05 the morning of Sept. 23, screams rang down the prison corridor. A guard found the cellmate, Martin Benito Montemayor, standing over Figueroa’s bloody body with an 8-inch metal rod. When ordered to drop the weapon, a prison spokesman said, the cellmate ″stabbed the victim three more times for a total of 22 times.″

The killing of Figueroa, 35, was sudden and swift, typical and telling. It was the 27th slaying of a Texas inmate behind bars this year, and it underscored the fine line that exists between life and death in the nation’s second largest prison system.

Texas leads the United States in homicides this year, accounting for almost one-third of the nation’s 82 prison killings through October.

The 27 homicides are also a record for the state. The 38,000 inmates inside the penitentiaries, although under the care of the state, have a six times greater chance of being murdered than Texans on the outside. It’s three times safer on Texas highways than in Texas prisons.

And Texas isn’t alone. An Associated Press survey of prisons in all 50 states showed that in seven states, the number of killings behind bars this year already has exceeded the number in all of 1984.

In Oklahoma, the number of prison slayings has jumped 50 percent this year compared to last and Michigan, which had only one killing in prison last year, has recorded five this year. Prison killings are also up in Connecticut, Maine, New Mexico and Ohio.

Some large prison systems, however, have effectively dealt with the problem. Authorities say California, the nation’s largest prison system, has paved the way with innovative programs, some of which now are being copied in Texas.

California has had 10 prison homicides this year. Tennessee, where overcrowded cells were shut to new prisoners recently by a federal judge, has had four. New York has had only two.

Prison experts attribute much of the problem in Texas to the now familiar litany of too little space, too few guards and conflict among ruthless prison gangs.

″We had this idea in Texas that we could send them down there, lock them up and throw away the key,″ said state Rep. Ray Keller, chairman of the House Law Enforcement Committee and a prison administration critic. ″Now we know we have to do more.″

But Texas’ problems are also specifically rooted in its system, peculiar to the South and now widely outlawed, of ″building tenders.″ These were inmate guards who had control of prison wings seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

The tenders were more than security guards; they determined who roomed with whom, who was fed and who wasn’t. Under the tenders, killings behind bars weren’t reported to the public and, before 1983, autopsies were not conducted on those who died in prison.

Because the tenders kept such tight, harsh control, the prisons themselves were not built for top security. Cells are separated by hollow bars capable of being cut with wet boot laces. Corriors are so narrow that inmates can literally reach out and stab someone. In one prison, cell door locks are so flimsy they can be shaken open.

These design shortcuts still plague Texas’ 27 prison units, even though U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice abolished the building tender system in 1983.

Guards cannot carry guns inside most prisons because of the close quarters, and prisoners must walk to the shower behind rolling metal shields. Inmates shove their bunks to the center of their cells so their neighbors can’t reach them through the bars at night.

Metal rods inside toilets are easily sharpened into weapons. In one 45- second attack Labor Day weekend, three inmates were stabbed and killed by a pair of prisoners.

Staunching the bloodshed won’t be easy, said Lane McCotter, the state’s fourth prison director since 1983.

″A year ago, no, we did not have control. We were struggling to maintain control,″ he said.

Today, he said, guards are regaining the upper hand.

After the building tenders were banned two years ago, the prisons filled the power void with more than 2,000 guards hired over 18 months. Those ″green guards″ are now working to gain the experience and savvy to deal with cunning inmates, officials said.

″You make one slip and they can beat you. That’s what they want, to beat you, to get something by you, and they have nothing but time to plan it,″ said former guard Charles Brown, now a prison spokesman.

Because of the lack of guard authority, Texas prisons have been dominated by two mostly Hispanic gangs, the Texas Syndicate and the Mexican Mafia, who have battled for membership and control of the lucrative prison drug trade.

″Seventy to 80 percent of the homicides have been connected to gang-type activity,″ McCotter said. ″Gang activities are now just about systemwide in the United States. Recently, at a conference of prison administrators, some 30 states acknowledged that their No. 1 problem is overcrowding, and No. 2 is prison gangs.″

McCotter, who came to Texas from a military career that included commanding the Army prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., is cracking down on the gangs to try to end the violence.

Gang members have been identified and isolated, mail between inmates was cut off for a time, a special SWAT-type guard unit was organized, arrangements have been made to swap gang leaders among states, and the more violent prisons were locked down for long periods.

Letters intercepted from a neo-Nazi gang called the Aryan Brotherhood outlined plans to kill 50 enemies inside the prisons. A single cell-to-cell search in July 1984 of about half the Coffield Unit outside Palestine, Texas, which houses 3,600 inmates, turned up 489 weapons, according to warden Jack Garner.

″There were so many weapons everyone and their brother was armed,″ McCotter said.

The measures in part are patterned after tactics first used in California, which in 1972 had more than 35 inmate killings, most blamed on gang rivalries.

″We’re really where they were 10 years ago,″ said Texas prisons spokesman Phil Guthrie, who held the same job in California until coming to Texas last year. ″They’ve been into this whole control program over gangs for some time. Ours is really in its infancy.″

Officials in California, which has 48,000 inmates, now have four categories for gang members - members, associate members, hangers on and former members - and separates them accordingly, said Dick Ellis, a prison spokesman and a guard at Folsom prison for more than 11 years.

Violent inmates are sent to Folsom, San Quentin or a new unit opened Oct. 1 in Southern California - all of which were constructed with violence in mind. Walls between cells are granite or reinforced concrete, for example, and guards have the protection of gun walks inside, Ellis said.

Texas has been concentrating violent inmates in six prisons since 1984, abandoning a past policy that allowed drunken-driving offenders to end up next to murderers. The mechanisms in cell toilets are gradually being replaced with one-piece units.

The changes have already had an impact, McCotter said.

October was the first month since January 1984 in which a homicide was not committed, the number of non-fatal stabbings is down 39 percent over 1984 and a recent sweep of cells in 13 prisons produced only 120 weapons, McCotter said. The two main gangs have even circulated a peace treaty.

″We’re hopeful that with the latest measures we’re at the start of a trend (away from violence),″ said Guthrie.

″When the building tender system was dismantled, there was a void, a vacuum of power until we could assume an authoritative power role. That has happened and the inmates understand that, and 95 percent of them are in favor of that,″ McCotter said.

″We pulled it out without losing it, and we think we’re getting stronger every day.″

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EDITOR’S NOTE - Scott McCartney is the AP southwest regional correspondent, based in Dallas.

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