Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Cruel and Unusual

By Janet Heimlich

MARCH 2, 1998:  Apparently, James Barker feared for his life. The convicted burglar was a prisoner at the Coffield Unit in Tennessee Colony. Not a model inmate, Barker had been in numerous scrapes with guards, but in the early part of last year, he seemed convinced that officers had it out for him. One day, according to letters written by Barker, a guard accused him of cigarette trafficking. It was during a cell search. Barker was handcuffed from behind as the officer demanded to know which inmates had the contraband. When Barker refused to give up information, he said, the guard tripped him, breaking his glasses and splitting his chin "wide open." After that, Barker wrote, the officer threatened to move him to another part of the prison "so his nigger bulls could turn me into a punk and fuck me. Then I'd wished I'd worked for them as I was offered." A few weeks later, Barker was indeed moved and given a new cellmate, a man named Ector Lee. Lee was serving time for assaulting a police officer and had a violent record in prison as well. According to the Anderson County District Attorney's Office, he had been prosecuted a couple of years earlier for starting a riot. In a letter to his sister, Barker wrote: "I'm in a cell with a black inmate who is in close custody for stabbing four whites. He's a known gang member who hates the white race and turns most of his white cellies into homosexual punks." But while Barker still worried that guards may have wanted to "put a hit out" on him, he also expressed doubt that they would hire Lee to do what they claimed. "So far, we get along okay," Barker wrote his mother.

As far as anyone knows, James Barker was never raped by Ector Lee. But what happened to him instead was far worse. On April 7 of last year, a few weeks after the move, the two men got into a scuffle. When it was over, Barker was in the hospital with massive head injuries from which he never recovered. His sister, Margaret Young, rushed to the East Texas Medical Center in Tyler when she got the news. By the time she arrived, Barker had undergone brain surgery and was in a coma. Young tearfully described her brother's appearance as unrecognizable. "He had stitches in his forehead, in his eyebrow, and in his lips, and his face was swollen to about three to four times the normal size. There was not one piece of unbruised skin on the left side of his face. Later we found out his left eye had been totally put out." While still in a vegetative state, Barker was moved to a prison medical unit where he died soon after.

Internal affairs investigated the case and found no evidence linking guards to the attack. Two weeks ago, Lee was indicted for manslaughter. It is uncertain how long the fight continued in the locked cell - one prosecutor stated "at least a few minutes," while another source said that a prisoner who witnessed the fight put it at more like 40 minutes. Young became particularly concerned after receiving a letter from an inmate she did not know, who had heard that the fight had "lasted a lot longer than it should have." Also, no one has been able to say just how long it took guards to notice Barker's body - Young was told by a warden that her brother probably lay in the cell for at least an hour.

So even if guards had no hand in the killing of James Barker, his death is a telling symptom of what has become a big problem in Texas: While it is not the most violent in the country, the Texas prison system's rate of violent crime has been rising faster than in other systems with large populations. In 1989, Texas reported less than five assaults per 1,000 prisoners - as of last year, that number has more than doubled. Barker was one of nine state prisoners who were reportedly killed by other inmates last year, and another died at the hands of guards. And while reported inmate-on-inmate assaults have begun to come down slightly over the last two years, assaults on staff continue to escalate at an unprecedented rate.

Texas prison officials attribute the rise in violence to a hardening of the prison population. They say that, while a majority of prisoners are in for non-violent crimes and do not cause problems, the 10 or 20% who prey on other inmates are younger, meaner, and serve longer sentences - and many belong to prison gangs. Prisoner advocates, on the other hand, blame the prison system for not doing enough to protect the victims, saying that the system is creating a "culture of violence" by not hiring more guards and requiring them to patrol more frequently.

James Barker never recovered from the massive head injuries he received at the hands of another inmate.

But there is another phenomenon at work, as well, which may help to explain the high crime rate in Texas prisons and why there were no guards around while Ector Lee was allegedly beating James Barker to within an inch of his life. Since 1989, the state has been building prisons at an unprecedented rate, which has led to the prison system more than tripling in capacity. Now, the administration is having trouble finding enough guards. Gary Johnson, Director of the system's Institutional Division, says it has been difficult to maintain a staff of 27,000 correctional officers, especially in the rural areas, where communities unfamiliar to the prison industry do not have a ready work force. And as new prisons open, the task of filling the positions gets tougher, requiring the administration to hire as many as 400 guards a month. Johnson says that meeting the demand has meant reducing pre-service training of officers and extending the workday from eight to 12 hours at some of the units.

Despite the challenges, Johnson maintains that the Texas system does "whatever it takes" to protect prisoners from abuse. Those who feel threatened may file grievances or contact a commanding officer or internal affairs for help. Prisoners can be moved to a protected area of the prison called "safekeeping," and some of the new prisons are installing video camera surveillance. And, maintains Johnson and other officials, while guards are not required to patrol at regular intervals, they are encouraged to walk around often.

But according to some people who work in the system, even the most violent units are understaffed, and many guards are unqualified at best. The starting salary for a correctional officer in Texas is about $19,000 per year. Applicants may be as young as 18, have no experience in law enforcement, and may even have a criminal record themselves. (According to the Department of Criminal Justice, correctional officers are denied employment if they have been convicted of a misdemeanor in the last year or have served time in prison in the last 15 years.) Johnson admits that imposing more stringent hiring criteria would improve the work force but, because the system is in need of so many people, it's hard to be aggressively selective. "If we said everybody should be 21 years old and have 60 hours of college," said Johnson, "that could impact our pool of applicants quite a bit."

Barker and Margaret Young in the early 1990's

Meanwhile, prisoners live in fear of being stabbed, raped, or killed while incarcerated. Barker had apparently felt mounting pressure at Coffield. About a week before the deadly attack, Barker wrote his mother: "This unit is headed for a real eruption, and I understand several of the other units are also. Mom, I don't want to end up killed by guards, inmates or National Guards, but I can guarantee it's coming."

The increase in prison violence raises questions as to the system's responsibilities to keep its population safe. The Eighth Amendment is supposed to guarantee a safe environment, but if prisoners are hurt or killed, the legal system offers little recourse to inmates or their families, says Jim Harrington, Legal Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin. Harrington says it's rare for prisoners or their families to win lawsuits, because they must meet the high standard of proving "deliberate indifference" on the part of the prison system, such as a guard turning a blind eye to crime or actually setting up an attack. And recent laws passed by Congress to eliminate frivolous prisoner lawsuits have led to judges throwing out legitimate cases, said Harrington: "You don't see the courts taking the time to look at the cases to see if, in fact, there is some merit here, or ordering some further investigation."

In September of last year, a Texas Senate committee began a year-long study to examine prisoner safety issues; it has held hearings which included testimony from prison officials and the families of inmates. But if actions by the legislature over the last several years are any indicator of what will be done, Texas prisons will not become safer places to serve one's time. Prison officials say their requests to raise guards' salaries have been repeatedly turned down, while tough penal laws have greatly limited prisoners' abilities to reduce their sentences, and brought parole rates to an all-time low. With less incentive for inmates to obey the rules - and with more prison construction underway - critics say that violence in the Texas prison system will surely get worse.

Such skepticism, however, has not discouraged Margaret Young from trying to educate others about the problem. Since her brother's death, she has joined a prisoner advocacy group, and been invited to talk about her ordeal on a Dallas radio program. Young wants other people to take prison violence seriously too. "Who knows," she said, "the next person that goes in could be one of their loved ones."

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