Correctional officers are using “major” force against inmates more often, and experts point to staff turnover, inexperience and the brutal heat of Texas summers as the most likely factors.
Despite a decrease in the prison population from 2005 to 2013, the number of “major use of force" incidents grew some 17 percent, according to statistics kept by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
While TDCJ officials say the fluctuations are random and can’t be tied to any one factor, other experts say the increase in reported use of force is a symptom of an inexperienced officer corps and an often overheated environment.
The number of “major use of force" incidents rose to 7,151 in 2013 from 6,071 incidents in 2005, according to TDCJ statistics. Jason Clark, a TDCJ spokesman said there was a change in the way the incidents were reported in 2012, which could account for some of the increased incident reporting. But he could not say how much that would have changed the numbers.
Lance Lowry, president of the Texas correctional employees union, said that most of the time force is used in confrontational situations where inmates refuse to cooperate with orders.
With many veteran correctional officers retiring, the state prison system is relying more on rookie staff members, including some who may lack the skills to “de-escalate” a confrontation before deciding to use some sort of force, Lowry said.
In the fall of 2013, TDCJ had more than 3,000 corrections officer vacancies throughout its 109 prison units, according to agency data, even after the closure last year of two privately run facilities.
“De-escalation skills are developed by staff through many years of experience,” Lowry said.
The use of force statistics, are part of TDJC’s monthly Emergency Action Center reports, which track a variety of incidents, such as suicides, accidental inmate deaths and escapes, that occur within the prison system.
Lowry said the fact that many “major use of force” incidents occurred in larger units was not surprising because those units have more serious offenders. For instance, in September at the Stiles Unit in Beaumont, there were 41 incidents, and at the McConnell Unit in Beeville, there were 43 incidents. Those units are among the largest in the state, each housing about 2,900 inmates.
Worthy of note, Lowry said, is that use of force incidents increased dramatically in summer months. Heat is a factor, he said, because Texas prisons are not air conditioned and confrontations escalate more quickly. In the Connally Unit in South Texas, for example, the number of incidents rose to 36 in August from 22 in February.
Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, noted another trend she called troubling in the use of chemical agents, like pepper spray, against inmates.
While the overall number of times that the agents were employed between February 2013 and the same month this year was down, the reasons given do not indicate that life-threatening situations provoked their use.
Last February, correctional officers used chemical agents 61 times on inmates because they refused to follow “strip and handcuff procedures.” Agents were used another 32 times because inmates were blocking a meal tray slot or covering a cell door.
“They’re all where they won’t comply with an order,” Deitch said. “There’s no particular indication that there’s an immediate danger of any kind.”
Disclosure: At the time of publication, the University of Texas at Austin was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. (You can also review the full list of Tribune donors and sponsors below $1,000.)