The Houston Chronicle
A major and three other prison guards were indicted in Brazoria County after they allegedly conspired to plant screwdrivers in an inmate's cell at the Ramsey Unit.
Maj. Juan Jackson, Lt. James Thomas, Sgt. Marcus Gallegos and Officer George Wolfe are facing charges of felony tampering with governmental records and misdemeanor official oppression after a prisoner's mother came forward with the allegations earlier this year, authorities said.
A grand jury voted last week to indict the four men, and a judge signed off on arrest warrants Tuesday, according to officials. It's not clear if they have been taken into custody yet.
Word of the charges sparked renewed calls for outside oversight of the agency, a task that partially falls to the Office of the Inspector General, an independent entity reporting to the same Texas Board of Criminal Justice.
"We've been fighting for independent oversight for years and haven't been able to get any traction," said Jennifer Erschabek of the Texas Inmate Families Association. "They always say there's the ombudsman, the House Corrections Committee, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, the board - but that's never been effective for us because we never get the transparency or accountability we need on these issues. It takes the news media to get to the bottom of this and get to facts.
The indictments are just the latest fallout from an evidence-planting scheme that came amid an investigation into a short-lived disciplinary quota system requiring officers to write up inmates or risk facing consequences themselves.
In the weeks after news of the scandals was first reported in the Chronicle, five officials were fired, another resigned under investigation, several others - including a warden - were demoted or transferred, more than 600 disciplinary were cases tossed out, and the prison system set out to review its disciplinary policies.
Though the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has repeatedly stressed that the evidence-planting and the quota system were unconnected, the same former major was allegedly involved in both.
A Texas prison spokesman last month called the screwdriver-planting scheme an "isolated incident." Since then dozens of inmates and their families have reached out to the Chronicle, the Office of the Inspector General and Texas Inmates Families Association with similar allegations.
"Officers planting drugs, weapons, and other forms of contraband is a fairly regular occurrence in TDCJ," one inmate said, after detailing another alleged evidence-planting incident he says he witnessed at Ramsey Unit.
In the past five years, there have been more than 75 arrests or charges of tampering with evidence or records filed against TDCJ officers, records show. That figure only includes cases investigated by the Office of the Inspector General, and it doesn't indicate how the cases were ultimately resolved.
The quotas for inmate disciplinary reports at the Brazoria lockup came to light in mid-May after the Chronicle obtained copies of an email from Capt. Reginald Gilbert ordering officers to write up prisoners.
"Effective March 10, 2018, each Sergeant will be required to turn in at least two (2) cases written by officers for a Level 2 Code 35 'Unauthorized Storage of Property,'" he wrote. "Two each day is my requirement. Remember this is to be done each workday without exception."
A couple hours later, Jackson responded, noting that the "below instructions will help greatly in fighting a gig," which is slang for an audit.
Weeks later, prison officials abandoned the quota system, but TDCJ started investigating after the Chronicle reported on it.
A statewide audit found similar systems in place at three other units: Lychner State Jail in Harris County, Travis County State Jail in Austin, and the McConnell Unit in Bee County. Between the four units, several wardens, captains and other officials were demoted and more than 600 disciplinary cases tossed.
But on May 25, as officials probed the "bogus" cases, an inmate's mother wrote in to say her son had been set up by prison guards who allegedly planted two screwdrivers in the man's cell earlier that month at Ramsey Unit. The Office of the Inspector General launched an investigation and found the claim had merit.
Jackson - who'd already been demoted and transferred - was walked off the unit and resigned under investigation.
Four officers at that prison - including three of those indicted last week - were recommended for termination, officials said at the time. A few weeks later, Warden Virgil McMullen was demoted and transferred.
It's not clear whether any of the men have attorneys. A judge set bail at $10,000 for three of the men, but it's not clear what Jackson's bail will be.
"It's good that people are being held accountable," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, "and to see where the process goes from here."
The AFSCME Texas Corrections union similarly lauded the outcome and called the whole incident "disheartening." None of the four were union members, a spokesman said.
"Throughout all actions of the 'quota system' ordeal or the alleged planting of evidence, someone was in charge giving the orders. That culture needs to change," said Officer Martin Barrera, a union president at the Lubbock chapter.
"AFSCME works with TDCJ to promote perseverance, integrity and courage," he added.
"Together with the agency we can regain the trust of all our communities."
The prisoner at the center of the claims, records show, is serving a 40-year sentence for a murder charge out of Montgomery County. He's been moved to another unit and is up for parole next year.
Correction: Initially prison officials identified one of the indicted men as James Smith. Later, they clarified that his name was James Thomas.
Editors Note: TDCJ is not a place anyone wants to be. Prisoners or Corrections Officers. Most of the units are still not air-conditioned and the pay is dismal at best. The State of Texas has not ever contributed a decent amount to the TDCJ budget. It shows.