What Manner of Control
by David Goff, #999015

Federally mandated bare necessities, such as food, clothing, safe housing, and medical treatment are not the only barometers of overall conditions of a prison system. Actions by prison administrators as to those in their care sheds far more light on applications of court-mandated treatment of prisoners. Hostile environments created by prison administrators increases the likelihood of conditions detrimental to the well being (physical and mental) of prisoners.

Over several weeks I spoke with a number of the men concerning conditions and treatment by the staff overseeing death row in Texas. Though there were many stories, ranging from denial of adequate medical treatment to actual physical abuse (some rang truer than others), there was a reluctance to have their stories told in print!. A real fear of "unchecked" retaliation was an overwhelming concern.

This fear is not unfounded. In Texas prisons over the last five years, several security officers have been administratively disciplined and/or criminally prosecuted for crimes ranging from assault to murder of prisoners. All incidents were deemed retaliatory acts. All prosecutions, uncommonly enough, were assisted by testimony of other security officers who witnessed or had knowledge of such acts and came forward. Oddly, or strangely, though a few supervisors of the officers were indicted, fired or resigned, others were reassigned to various prisons. This was despite those ranking officials being aware, in part or fully, of patterns of abuse by officers under their command.

Prisoners on death row appear to fear harassment, intimidation, retaliatory acts, even physical assaults at the hands of security officers and, the administration's lack of interest, far more than they fear physical violence by a fellow prisoner. This fear seems to impede use of established grievance systems. The view that utilization of the grievance process to check these abuses only strengthens the "unofficial" policy of intimidation of death row prisoners has its supporters, both inside and outside of prison. A look at an available study suggests that an adequate review of complaints lodged against security officers and supervisors might reveal findings of fact adversely against the complainant in over 98% of complaints filed. Incidents detailing denial of basic services, racial taunting, intentionally contaminating food products with body fluids, general harassment and physical assaults make up the majority of complaints. It is doubtful in Texas within the last two years if a complaint filed by a death row prisoner has resulted in the finding of fact supporting the allegations in the complaint. This creates a discrepancy.

The statements of prisoners on Texas' death row, who are housed in different locations of the prison; many having no contact with one another, causes one to wonder of the accuracy of the fact-finding process relating to complaints filed. All seem to have had similarly related incidents of harassment, intimidation, and clear abuse by an identifiable group of security officers; several of whom denied any such allegations when questioned concerning acts of abuse. Then there are those security officers who have related displeasure with the activities of their fellow officers and the administration's lack of concern and action as to complaints filed by prisoners against these officers.

H. von Henting wrote in The Criminal and His Victim that, "the police force and the ranks of prison officers attract many aberrant characters because they afford legal channels for pain-inflicting, power-wielding behavior, and because these very positions confer upon their holders a large degree of immunity..."

With the courts moving to look the other way in the treatment of prisoners, short of "lasting permanent damage or death" as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas suggested that they should, prisons are becoming hot beds of contention. Administrators no longer feeling the weight of any oversight and aware of society's growing lack of concern with the treatment of prisoners, are creating hostile environments. Even encouraging mistreatment of prisoners in order to "maintain the line of control".

Too often the men say not enough attention is given to the conditions here on the row. This is not a planned oversight. Due to the various legal questions concerning death penalty laws, many of the writings within the DRJ have centered on related court actions. Yet we are not unaware, not unconcerned with the conditions facing those on death rows throughout the nation. I myself, look forward to hearing from anyone with knowledge of abuse of prisoners, or summary dismissal of complaints in an unfair manner. In the future we will attempt to bring these issues to light.