1,600 problems with Texas prison locks

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Sunday, March 26, 2000

1,600 problems with prison locks 6 months of incidents being addressed by state and door maker By Jeremy Schwartz Caller-Times

Texas prisoners escaped from what were supposed to be locked cells an estimated 50 times in 1999, leading to several violent incidents, including a December riot at the McConnell Unit in Beeville in which a correctional officer was stabbed, prison officials said.

That incident was among the estimated 1,600 times that problems with locking mechanisms on cell doors have been reported to officials since September, according to information provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The 1,600 incidents include mechanical malfunctions, human error and faulty operation because of wear on the locking systems as well as tampering by inmates, prison officials say. "(The lock) is a mechanical device that's subject to failure, especially with wear," said Larry Todd, a prison system spokesman. "But that's not an excuse. We cannot tolerate that." After a February incident in which a death row inmate at the Terrell Unit escaped from his cell and took a guard hostage, some prison officials, correctional officers and inmates are saying that ways to break out of locked cell doors is common knowledge among inmates. Gary Johnson, director of the prison system's institutional division, says many of the 1,600 incidents are likely the result of normal wear and tear and minor adjustments made to the locks. "That's not an indication of cell door security," he said.

But the prison system is pursuing solutions and union officials are calling the cell door problems a health concern for correctional officers. Todd said 1,600 incidents aren't a large number given the size of the prison system, which includes 112 facilities that hold 150,000 inmates. But it still is a concern, he said. "We are definitely working on it," he said. "We are aware of the problem and have been for some time," he said.

Prison officials who gathered last week in Huntsville for a meeting of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice discussed a number of potential solutions, including having correctional officers increase vigilance in checking doors and installing new cell lock monitoring devices. But as these hoped-for solutions are implemented, inmates say it is far too easy for prisoners to get out of their cells. Methods widely known In two letters to the Caller-Times from inmates from the McConnell Unit and the Ellis Unit, the inmates said that knowledge of how to tamper with locks is widespread in Michael prototype units. This series of prisons built within the last decade house the prison system's most violent offenders, including death row inmates. Of the 50 cell escapes reported by the prison system in 1999, 37 occurred inside Michael prototype units, Johnson said. The McConnell inmate wrote that both general population inmates and those in administrative segregation, where some of the most dangerous inmates are housed, know how to build devices using everyday items available to inmates to disable the locks and free themselves. Brian Olsen, deputy director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents correctional officers, said cell door security is a safety issue for officers. "It played a key role in the McConnell Unit incident and it needs to be taken care of," Olsen said.

In the December riot at the McConnell Unit, an inmate pried his way out of his cell and made it through three security doors. He stabbed a correctional officer and seized control of a maximum-security area, releasing 83 inmates from their cells. "In addition to a pay raise we need a safer working environment," Olsen said. "Those doors are a major problem. I don't know how or when they'll do it, but they need to do it soon."

Proposed solutions Johnson says the jamming of locks is a problem that occurs in other types of doors in addition to Michael type units and is also a dilemma for other states. "I don't know how we can preclude (inmates) from doing it. The only way is to check frequently," he said. Most of the proposed solutions would make it easier for correctional officers to know when a door is being opened when it shouldn't be, Johnson said. Red lights in control room In the past, cell doors were left open when inmates were taken out of their cells, causing a red light to go on in the control room. With a number of red lights illuminated, Johnson said, it was difficult for correctional officers to notice when a red light came on from an unauthorized cell. Cell doors now will be closed when inmates are out of them to cut down on the number of red lights officers have to sift through, Johnson said. Additional monitoring systems also are being installed above doors in administrative segregation and death row areas of Michael prototype units.

Red lights will illuminate when a door is opened, providing another indication to officers that a door is open when it shouldn't be. "It's like a double-check system," Johnson said. New reviews And last week wardens and technicians from the 10 Michael prototype units gathered in Huntsville for demonstrations on the various ways inmates are tampering with locks. "The demonstration showed how it's happening so they can go back to their units and show their security staff what to look for," Johnson said. Johnson said representatives with Southern Steel, a San Antonio-based manufacturing company that built some of the locking mechanisms in the Michael prototype units, have revisited prisons to look at the locks and try to find ways to keep them from being jammed. Lock failures He said the prison system's legal division is looking into the problems, but did not say if legal action is being contemplated.

The lock failures that helped lead to the McConnell Unit riot and Terrell Unit hostage situation were not the first times a serious incident has caused the prison system to question its cell door locks.

In December 1998, Jesse Cortez, then serving a life term for rape at the Robertson Unit in Abilene, somehow escaped from his cell, grabbed a female officer walking past, and pulled her into his cell where he held her hostage for several hours. Metal tabs on door jambs An incident report written Dec. 29, 1998, recommended that the prison system take "immediate action to assess and make recommendations pertaining to the door locking mechanisms in the general population at the Robertson Unit as well as other Michael Type Units."

A follow-up review to the incident report, written by Region V Assistant Director Ben Brown in August, states that a recommendation to make locks more difficult to manipulate wasn't implemented. The recommendation was to add metal to the inside of the existing door jamb. While that wasn't done, officials did put metal tabs on the jambs to decrease the slack in the door operation, Brown wrote. For some correctional officers, the ability of inmates to get out of cell doors is a constant concern. "You better believe it's a conscious worry," said McConnell Unit correctional officer Ann Lang in the days following the death row hostage situation. "Every day."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 27, 2000

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