Sunday, November 11, 2007

Accounts of abuse allegations against guards at Harris jail, TDCJ unit, recall Stanford Prison Experiment

It's been small Texas papers and blogs, not the major metro dailies, who've continued to highlight the rising number of sustained misconduct allegations against Texas prison guards. Lately, The Back Gate and then the Huntsville Item looked at the aggregate misconduct statistics. Now reporter Brenda Johnson at the Lake Houston Sentinel, a community newspaper covering eastern Harris County, brings several micro-examples of serious abuse by guards at a TDCJ unit and the Harris County Jail ("Huffman man indicted for assault, coverup," Nov. 9).
Huffman resident, Tracy Jewett, a former Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) correction officer, was recently indicted for allegedly assaulting a former inmate, covering up the assault, and obstruction of justice.

The announcement was made Oct. 29 by U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle and acting Assistant Attorney General Rena J. Comisac, Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice.

In November of 2002, Jewett, holding the rank of sergeant, was assigned to the Ferguson Unit of the TDCJ. He allegedly watched while guards Eugene Morris and Troy Grusendorf allegedly "stomped, kicked and punched" Robert Tanzini until he became unconscious.

According to the affidavit, Tanzini said he had several skull fractures and an eye "kicked out of its socket" when he awoke at University of Texas Medical Branch hospital in Galveston.

An investigation by TDCJ determined Morris had used excessive force. It also found that Jewett and Morris conspired to provide false testimony and falsify reports. Both men are charged separately with one count of falsifying and making a false entry in a TDCJ "Use of Force" report concerning the inmate with the intent to obstruct the investigation.

They are also both charged with separate counts of persuading other TDCJ employees to make false statements about the circumstances regarding the use of force against the inmate, with the intent to hinder, delay or prevent communication of details to officials.

Jewett was suspended without pay in April 2003. According to TDCJ records, he was "allowed to resign for personal reasons."

An east Harris County resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that he has been in Jewett's shoes. He was a jail guard at the Harris County Jail for 10 years. "I decided to change jobs when I found myself becoming callous and hardened to people and their basic human rights," he said. "The job, in itself, causes you to lose your perspective about people. There are many incidents that I'm not proud of, where other jail guards treated the inmates with cruelty and it was wrong."

Another person, who also wishes to remain anonymous, said that he was a Harris County Jail guard, but lost his job after his checkbook was stolen and a series of fraudulent checks caused his being arrested and incarcerated in the Harris County Jail.

"For four horrible days, I was treated exactly the same way I used to treat inmates," he said. "I never realized how it felt to be on the receiving end of that cruelty. Now that I've stood in their shoes, I'm just really having a hard time forgiving myself for how I used to treat inmates."

Samuel Miller, a 21-year-old Harris County resident, who was booked into the Harris County Jail in early October, 2006, for an expired registration has a pending law suit claiming he was deprived of his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. He describes an incident that transpired while he was waiting to be booked out of the Harris County Jail.

"I was excited to finally be getting booked out of that awful place and said something to the guy behind me," said Miller. "The jail guard got irked with me and I believe he set me up because about 15 minutes later, after a series of strange events, he took me into a holding cell and said `If you don't stop talking, I'm going to welcome you to County.' When I asked him what I'd done wrong, he grabbed me by my arms and pinned me to the wall. As I was sliding down the wall, he grabbed me by my right ear and slammed my face into a concrete bench and all I saw was blood. And then after he slammed me, he started to knee and elbow me in my ribs while screaming, `Quit resisting arrest!' But I wasn't. I kept saying, `I'm not. I didn't do anything. Then about four or five other officers came in and began kicking me and punching me. '"

Mark Evans, an east Harris County resident and father of six, witnessed the incident while he was also being booked out of the Harris County Jail for an erroneous out-of- county offense. "I was about 10 feet away," he said. "I can vouch for the kid as never once having raised a hand to those jail guards before they beat him. I saw the blood everywhere in the holding tank. They picked him up and carried him away like a limp rag doll. Then afterwards they carefully cleaned the room and scrubbed the blood from their shoes." ...

Jewett could not be reached for comment. His case, investigated by the FBI, will be prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ruben R. Perez, and Trial Attorney Edward Caspar with the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. Upon conviction of the deprivation of civil rights and obstruction of justice, Jewett faces a maximum punishment of 10 years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. The charge of making a false entry into a document also carries the same maximum punishment.
Note especially comments by the former Harris County jailer who learned to abhor his own prior cruelty toward inmates after spending four days in jail receiving the same treatment he'd previously dished out. I couldn't help but think upon reading them of the Stanford Prison Experiment, where "In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress," or of Waxahachie students' behavior earlier this year during role playing about the Holocaust. One wonders, hearing such accounts, whether the social relations in carceral environs simply bring out the worst in many folks?

"What happens when you put good people in an evil place?," asked Stanford Prison Experiment supervisor Phillip Zimbrado. This Lake Houston Sentinel article supplies at least a partial answer to that question. and it's not a very satisfying one.


Anonymous said...

This "Stanford effect" also comes into play in juvenile facilities, although it's not clear if it is worsened or ameliorated by the age of the inmates.

Nevertheless, it's another reason why large, prison-like facilities undermine the goal of juvenile rehabilitation.


Anonymous said...

i remember this. i used to work w officer jewett at the estelle unit before he made sergeant and transferred to ferguson. fyi he was a racist sob and his wife at the time was a whore. even though he was acquitted, at least he got a taste of his own medicine if only for a moment.