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Texas prison guards under criminal investigation over hospitalized inmate

 Two hours east of Waco, TDCJ's Coffield Unit sits among green pastures and rural roads.
Paul Flahive
Two hours east of Waco, TDCJ's Coffield Unit sits among green pastures and rural roads.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice said its officers used excessive force and have asked the Inspector General to criminally investigate a Sept. 5 incident that saw 13 guards terminated or resign and an inmate still in hospital more than two weeks later.

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The Texas prison system’s inspector general launched a criminal investigation into an assault that left an inmate hospitalized for more than two weeks and has seen 13 guards being terminated or resigning.

On Sept. 5, an inmate at the Coffield Unit — two hours southeast of Dallas — stabbed a guard. The yet-unnamed inmate was housed in one of the most secure wings. In responding with force, prison guards allegedly beat the man so badly that he was taken to the hospital — where he remains two weeks later.

“An internal review of this response determined excessive force was used and protocols were not followed,” said Amanda Hernandez, director of communications for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Details on the inmate’s condition were vague. Rumors among Coffield inmates varied from the man having already died to the guards being investigated for attempted murder.

The state confirmed he was recovering in the hospital.

The guard who was stabbed was treated and released from a hospital, according to the state.

Seven guards were terminated and six more resigned. The incident was forwarded to the Office of the Inspector General for a criminal investigation. None of the guards have been named, but it is one of few use of force incidents referred to the OIG for criminal investigation and fewer still with the number involved.

“Wow. That's huge,” said Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. “It is so rare for someone to be fired at all for this kind of behavior, let alone for that many people in an environment that is currently so understaffed.”

Coffield is one of the state’s least staffed facilities — with around 60% of positions unfilled this summer. Losing 13 guards in a single night only exacerbates its struggles with staffing that Deitch called “unacceptable,” but lauded the state for taking decisive action.

The numbers and speed of action are unique nationally.

"I've been litigating prison conditions for 23 years, and I cannot think of a situation in which that many correctional officers were fired or resigned that quickly...or even at all," said Deborah Golden, an attorney who practices in Washington D.C. and Virginia, focusing on human rights and prisoners.

Prison guards are given wide latitude in how they use force. Despite the lack of detail from the state on the condition of the inmate, she said it is likely the damage was extreme.

"We can infer that there was gratuitous and severe violence that was inflicted on this prisoner that on its face can't be justified," Golden said.

 Coffield Unit has only 39.7% of its positions filled as of the end of February
Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Coffield Unit has only 39.7% of its positions filled as of the end of February

In 2022 there were 243 “use of force” incidents at Coffield, while units like Allred and Clements saw 597 and 716 respectively, according to state data.

The state’s more than 100 prison facilities were all locked down on the following day.

The lockdown canceled inmate visitations and increased screenings, and guards have searched cells ever since.

The system-wide lockdown was launched after a spike in prison homicides. TDCJ linked many of the 16 murders to the flow of illegal drugs into its prisons.

The state denied that the lockdown based on violence and contraband was related to this incident of violence — which may have included contraband.

“This incident cannot be attributed to the lockdown,” said a spokeswoman. “The lockdown was implemented to halt the rise in dangerous contraband and drug-related inmate homicides.”

The state has slowly relaxed lockdown status as searches are completed with only 21 remaining on lockdown as of Thursday morning. Coffield is one of them.

Copyright 2023 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.