Thursday, June 07, 2018

Denial not just a river in Egypt, but also the go-to move for TDCJ flaks

The habit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) issuing full-throated denials whenever reporters raise serious problems is beginning to annoy your correspondent (again), and I wonder if others have noticed?

For example, when an inmate at TDCJ's Youthful Offender Program (YOP) was molested by an adult prisoner earlier this year, TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel told Lauren McGaughy at the Dallas Morning News, “'Any characterization of the [YOP] program being systemically flawed is false.' ... 'This is an isolated incident in which TDCJ took swift administrative actions against all employees involved.'”

In reality, under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) - which Governor Abbott agreed Texas would follow, reversing Governor Perry's stance - 17-year old inmates were supposed to be kept completely separate from adult inmates, enforcing "sight and sound" restrictions so older inmates could never see or speak to them.

So, when an adult inmate stuck his finger up the behind of a 17-year old in the Youthful Offender Program (YOP) in Brazoria County, it demonstrated that TDCJ had never actually complied with the sight and sound restrictions under PREA!

No adult prisoner should ever have been within ass-fingering distance of those kids.

Which tells us that, while TDCJ's spokesman insisted that, "Any characterization of the program being systemically flawed is false," in fact the incident precisely demonstrated a "systematic flaw" that went well beyond any "isolated incident."

These deeper, underlying, systemic issues are why TDCJ fired the warden and most of the YOP staff, then moved the whole operation, lock, stock, and barrel, to a facility in Huntsville nearer central administration. That's definitely a "systematic" response that belied the phony-baloney, nothing-to-see-here commentary Mr. Desel tried to pawn off on Ms. McGaughy.

The warden and staff were scapegoated. This problem resulted from decisions to disregard PREA sight-and-sound provisions for 17-year olds that would have been made at the highest levels of the agency.

Similarly, when the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition issued a report criticizing disparities in work and education opportunities for women prisoners, Mr. Desel told the Texas Tribune's Sydney Greene that he "vehemently disagreed" with the report, but offered at most nitpicking rebuttals to their criticisms.

This is deflection. In fact, as we learned in the same story, the agency itself recognized the disparities and asked for money from the Legislature in 2017 to upgrade women's programming, but it was denied. If the agency really disagreed there was a disparity, why would they need to ask for that money?

Then, this week, Grits read Keri Blakinger's story in the Houston Chronicle about four prison guards being fired at TDCJ's Ramsey Unit for planting evidence on inmates, then filing grievances against them. Allegedly, this fraud was conducted to comply with a 2-grievance-per-day quota dictated by their supervisor, a major, who was also terminated.

Once again, Mr. Desel exclaimed that the planting of evidence was an "isolated incident." But it's not an isolated incident if four guards are involved and they were enforcing a policy laid out by their supervisor! That's pretty much the opposite of an isolated incident. Rather, it is an example of systemic injustice.

One guard planting evidence on a prisoner and covering it up may be an "isolated incident." Five doing so is a conspiracy.

The Dallas News story mentioned above quoted a whistleblower accusing TDCJ of a "culture of coverup," and that's certainly what's evinced in this pattern of denials. In each case, reporters came forward with legitimately newsworthy stories and the agency responded with minimizing comments or outright denials in the face of obviously true, contravening facts.

That's not just evidence of a bunker mentality at the agency, it's a piss-poor PR strategy, to boot. Failing to acknowledge true things sets the agency up for a long-term media mire on these topics, where denials are corrected with facts, the agency issues a new round of denials, then we rinse and repeat until there's some real-world resolution, as we saw recently with the Texas Supreme Court ruling the agency can't conceal information about execution drugs.

Speaking of which: Few outside the agency probably remember that TDCJ fired their former spokesman, John Hurt, because he'd spoken honestly and factually with the press about that topic. Here's how Mr. Hurt, a 20-year PR veteran from the Texas Department of Transportation, recalled his brief tenure at TDCJ:
"My last interview was with Time magazine about the expiring execution drugs. When they found out, they positively came unglued that I did what I was getting paid for. They even admitted the interview read well, they just didn't want the issue in the media. They just wanted to keep issues like the CO shortage and the outdated execution drugs as far out of the media as possible."  Mr. Hurt went on to explain, "The admin suffers from intellectual incest. They all live in a little town, went to the same little college in Huntsville and are terrified of new ideas." Mr. Hurt then offered his ideas on how to change the face of the public information office and the agency in general. "Moving the agency to Austin would be in everyone's best interest." "I tried to show them how to position themselves in a positive light and they didn't want any part of it. I've never worked in a stranger place."
Before that, Michelle Lyons was fired for treating bloggers on equal footing with MSM reporters when they (we) requested information or reactions from the agency. They trumped up phony allegations that she'd fudged her time sheets and she sued, winning a fat settlement.

So this practice of deflection and deception is not new and not just attributable to Mr. Desel. Well before he arrived, back in 2013, I'd written, "Lately, Grits has come to consider both the TDCJ and Department of Public Safety PIOs [Public Information Offices] basically worthless," and little has changed since then.

Rather, it's more about what that YOP whistleblower called the "culture of coverup" surrounding what's now the planet's second largest prison system (after the feds) here in Texas. It's an old and well-worn pattern. But it's a continually lamentable one.


Wolf said...

Thanks for the candid comments about the need for real transformation within TDCJ. The relentless stream of denial relating to long known problems, is well documented. Resistance to change also has a well established track record. When it takes a lawsuit to protect vulnerable inmates from excessive heat,it's a sign that the TDCJ mission statement is just words. Evidence shows that TDCJ is not up to the task of effectively meeting its own objectives. Independent oversight, free from TDCJ influence, would be an excellent addition to the very difficult task of holding this publicly funded agency accountable,

Paula d'Etcheverry said...

This is fabulous! Sharing...!!

Anonymous said...

Why couldn't TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel be charged with a crime similar to violations of Tx Penal Code 37.10 Tampering with a Governmental Record? He is presenting false information to the public, knowingly so.

He is getting his info from some official record, but apparently is disseminating the information falsely. Unless of course, the info he is getting is actually false under the guise as true. In which case, there is a more literal and direct application of 37.10 to be invetigated

Mmuhammad95 said...

This foolishness is unacceptable..

Anonymous said...

Independent oversite would stop this nonsense. These lies and cover ups are unacceptable. It wastes my tax payer dollars in more ways than one.

Steven Michael Seys said...

I find it rather sad that the issue of lies and deflection coming out of the Texas prison system comes up every decade or so and nothing is done to change it, then when it's discovered anew everyone treats it like a first-time discovery. The practice of obfuscation and lies extends far beyond the official press releases of TDCJ into the practices of TDCJ lawyers in court as well as back channel buzz among the rank and file. When the agency lies to itself, of course it'll lie to the public.

Lauren O. said...

Thank you for this article! Independent oversight of TDCJ would definitely be a step in the right direction.