Thursday, April 01, 2010

Unusually stiff sentence for contraband smuggling in small-town Panhandle jail

What's unusual about this story is not that a small-town Panhandle jailer traded oral sex with female inmates for contraband, but that the local prosecutor pursued the case vigorously and secured a plea bargain for a four-year sentence. He wanted to go for a longer sentence, the DA said, but "he agreed to a plea deal in the case because victims and other witnesses are scattered throughout the state. Some, he said, are serving prison time, and it would cost taxpayers too much to bring them back to testify."

That's among the longest sentences I've seen handed out in recent memory for Texas prison or jail guards smuggling contraband or having sex with inmates, certainly in state court. By contrast, at TDCJ prison units guards caught smuggling contraband are put on probation or fired but not prosecuted. The Houston Chronicle reported last year that:

Texas prisons are a virtual bazaar of prohibited and illicit goods smuggled in by guards and correctional employees who have rarely faced harsh punishment when caught, according to a Houston Chronicle review.

Nearly 300 employees, many lowly paid correctional officers, were reprimanded for possessing prohibited items at 20 prison units with the most pervasive contraband problem between 2003 and 2008, records show.

Of the 263 employees disciplined solely for contraband, about three-fourths (199) were given probation, where they were placed under special scrutiny for specified periods. Thirty-five were fired; 26 received no punishment at all. One of the 263 was criminally prosecuted for the contraband, but served no prison time.

The only comparable sentence I know of involved Montague County Sheriff Bill Keating, who ran a jail, as AP put it where "'Animal House' meets Mayberry." But it never quite materialized. He pled guilty and faced a sentence of up to ten years in the federal pen, but then died in April 2009, just weeks before a federal judge was scheduled to issue his sentence in June. Of the 11 Montague jailers indicted with Keating in that scandal, so far the stiffest penalty received has been 2 years in prison for one CO; all others so far have gotten probation.

A more recent case in Austin involves a Travis County jailer (and former Chattanooga, TN "police officer of the year) who has been charged with a third degree felony (2-10 years) for similar transgressions. So if there's not a lower sentence reached in a plea bargain, she could receive a sentence in that range. In the Travis County case, though, there were aggravating circumstances (the capital murderer with whom she was romantically involved was plotting to murder a guard and escape with her help).

Beyond those few, isolated cases, I've not seen many prison or jail guards getting multi-year prison terms for contraband smuggling or improper relationships with inmates, particularly given how much contraband has been found at some TDCJ units. In jurisdictions dominated economically by prisons, grand juries sometimes won't even bring charges against prison staff. So the Moore County sentence is an outlier. For the most part, Texas is extremely inconsistent with prosecution and sentencing practices on these types of cases, mostly trending on the lenient side for a state with a "tuff on crime" reputation in every other area.

Honestly, that doesn't bother me a lot; I'm more bothered by the number of guards caught with contraband who're left on the job in probationary status. I tend to think that what's needed are systems approaches - checks and balances that limit opportunities for malfeasance, getting rid of bad apple employees when they're identified - and treating most contraband smuggling as an employment matter rather than cause for prosecution. As an employment matter, though, it should result in firing and the stripping of peace officer certification, with prejudice against returning to the profession.

Obviously there are extreme cases - like whoever smuggled the handgun to an inmate who escaped during medical transport last year - where the endangerment of others justifies incarceration as punishment. But in the larger number of day-to-day cases, I'm not so sure harsher sentences are necessary as long as the CO is fired.

What do you think? Given that today the vast majority of contraband-smuggling guards never face prosecution, what is the appropriate punishment when they do? Is job termination punishment enough, or do such cases merit prison time?

10 comments:

ckikerintulia said...

The jailer was a sleaze. The
sentence seems a little steep, even though the DA apparently wanted more, except for the inaccessibility of the "victims." Who were these "victims." The inmates wanted various contraband. The jailer wanted sex. They both got what they wanted. The jailer broke the rules. The inmates did too. Fire the jailer. Hit the inmates with some limited loss of privileges. Then call it a day.

If the jailer was withholding food or threatening punishment unless he got his jollies, then there would be victims. And there should be punishment beyond loss of job.

ckikerintulia said...

In a similar case also from the Panhandle:

It's my understanding that Texas porn law specifically allows parents to show their kids porn. DA James Farren wants to find a way around that law in order to prosecute a Randall countian who showed porn to his teenage daughter. Somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but I kinda thought it was the DA's job to enforce the law, not to try to find a way around it. Maybe the lege should rewrite the law, but not the DA.

gravyrug said...

In this case, I would think that demanding sex for favors would constitute sexual harassment, at least, in addition to the corruption charges. In the free world, such an exchange would be prostitution, but the guard having authority over the prisoners makes it harassment at least, if not assault.

Anonymous said...

Depends on what you want. If the level of contraband smuggling is ok...then just these wrist slaps are fine. If you want to reduce it, then ramp up the prosecutions and sentencing, but get ready to have to pay more for professional jailers.
I'd ramp it up but cut the jail pop about 50%.

Peter said...

It is true that by the very moment you demand for sex, you are harassing the person. I have seen this idea in teachers supplies of my mom

BB said...

Prosecution is absolutely necessary in the interest of public safety as well as general deterrence. Many of these cases could be prevented if we were not so negligent in our hiring practices. Texas must join with others and at some point begin psychologically screening recruits prior to offering them employment in a secure correctional facility. I was pleased to hear that TYC recently began utilizing such an assessment tool to ensure emotional suitability of applicants.

BB

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BB, I agree the problem could be mostly addressed (and most successfully addressed) at hiring. But if you hire people with integrity, I don't then also necessarily think it follows that a higher penalty would matter much - that implies the only reason they're not committing crimes is fear of punishment, and ideally one hopes to have hired better officers than that. Of course, as my father likes to say, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. In the current environment, maybe for some COs fear of prosecution is the only thing that keeps them honest - if so, it's a sad commentary.

sfenn said...

I see it from a different perspective . . . that of the family members who are very often wrongfully accused of bringing in contraband (at least partly because some in TDCJ are unwilling to do anything about their guards). I know of at least two moms (and I do know them personally and respect them) who have lost the 'privilege' of visiting their sons because of alleged contraband. In one case, the inmate had been pressured to tell how the contraband got into the unit. He refused (which is the only safe thing to do) so he was told that until he did tell, his mom would lose her visitation 'privileges'.

BB said...

Scott,

It is more than just sad. It is dangerous and embarrassing. I agree that if we addressed the poor labor quality issue then we would see fewer such cases and the incidents where we make examples of these individuals with enhanced penalties simply to deter others would not be an issue. This is the proverbial dog chasing its tail. Negligent hiring practices = Poor labor quality = Corruption, administrative burdens, nonrehabilitative environment and legal liabilities. Until it changes, it is what it is!

BB

FairPlay said...

Especially, for TDCJ I think that anyone who brings in contraband should be punished to the full extent of the law. These actions will continue as long as others do not see reprecussions for their actions. However, anytime that an TDCJ employee is prosecuted and convited of a felony they are usually sent to another state's penal system with an assumed idenity for their own protection. I sometimes wonder if this reduces the chance that they will be prosecuted.