It turns out the incident with the Sugar Land trusty making shopping runs to the Walmart wasn't an isolated incident. According to the Houston Chronicle ("Trust in prison trusties shaky," March 8):
Days after a Texas prison trusty sneaked into a Sugar Land Walmart to buy cigarettes, contraband-sniffing dogs outside Beaumont's Stiles Unit pinpointed a cache of tobacco, 19 cell phones and 18 phone chargers hidden behind a prison food barn. Both cases came on the heels of the discovery of 200 packages of forbidden tobacco and 4 gallons of booze stashed outside the fences of Brazoria County's Darrington Unit.A Chron commenter quippped, "What's the world coming to when you can't trust a convicted felon to do the right thing?"
To Texas Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate's criminal justice committee, the February contraband cases show that recent security improvements at state lockups haven't made prisons secure enough.
Focusing on prison trusties — inmates whose nonviolent offenses, good behavior and parole eligibility have earned them the privilege of working outside prison walls — the Houston Democrat on Monday called for increased surveillance and searches.
“Prisons ought to be the most secure sites in the state of Texas,” Whitmire said, “and that should apply to every type of facility, including those for trusties. People have attitude changes. They relapse. ... There ought to be stiff measures to secure surrounding communities from trusties who go bad.”
At present, most trusty camps — there are eight in the greater Houston area — lodge inmates in barless dormitories in unfenced compounds outside the prisons. During the day, the privileged inmates are permitted to drive trucks and tractors, tend livestock and perform other jobs outside the prison.
The issue of trusty trustworthiness gained public attention in late February when 19-year-old Central Unit prisoner Skyler Steddum was caught buying cigarettes at a Sugar Land Walmart.
If anybody was looking for a good reason to close TDCJ's Central Unit in Sugar Land - I mean besides the fact that the state needs to save money, the prison is old, outdated and expensive to operate, and it lies in the middle of a development corridor between a local airport and a business park that the Chamber of Commerce crowd wants to build out - this episode might just put the matter over the top.
These other episodes, however, raise security questions about the whole practice of using trusties. On one hand, these offenders are of so little risk that they need no bars to hold them and at the Central Unit, at least, make runs to the Walmart when they please, and come back. On the other hand, trusties are a significant source of contraband smuggling, possibly even related to smuggling a gun to an inmate in a recent escape attempt. The risk-reward ratio of keeping these prisoners at TDCJ units is seriously screwed up. But that still happens because, if we possessed some mutant third hand, on it we'd find the crux of the problem: TDCJ has throughout its history operated on inmate labor and trusties perform functions that would require staff if they weren't fulfilled.
I admittedly don't know much about current trusty uses and practices, but with Sen. Whitmire on the case I suspect we may learn more as his Senate Criminal Justice Committee examines TDCJ security issues headed into next session.