High-profile inmate escapes prompt new Texas policies

Prisoners now attend court via satellite and wait 10 years for low-risk prison jobs.

More than a year after the "Texas Seven" broke out of prison and went on a six-week spree of terror that left one police officer dead, the memory of their misdeeds is still fresh in the minds of many here.

Though only two inmates have escaped from Texas prisons since then, there's been a record number – 64 – of escapes from jails that hold prisoners awaiting trial.

It all fuels the public perception that prison busts are common in the Lone Star State, and officials here are searching for new security measures.

Two new programs aim to minimize temptation by holding high-risk inmates in a tighter prison grip.

The latest attempt by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is a new inmate classification system, that took effect Monday, requiring high-risk inmates to have served a minimum of 10 years before they're eligible for low-risk job assignments and dormitory housing. Before, there was no minimum waiting period.

Six of the Texas Seven had minimum-security jobs in the prison maintenance department, but would not qualify for those jobs under the new policy.

Also, the TDCJ recently significantly expanded its video teleconferencing system, which connects inmates with court officials via satellite, minimizing the risk of transporting prisoners to and from court appearances.

The satellite link is a valuable substitute for using prison guards, who are in critically short supply, to transport prisoners.

But probably most important is the idea that cutting down on transporting prisoners means fewer opportunities for escape.

"Public safety is our first consideration," says Larry Fitzgerald, a TDCJ spokesman. And when much of an inmate's court business is done inside the penitentiary, he says, "it does not afford them the ability to try to escape."

Last year, more than 2,000 prisoners were transported for arraignments, depositions, pre-trial hearings, and other court business in Texas. That ties up precious prison-guard time and means less security inside the prison.

Mr. Fitzgerald says the "Texas Seven" prison break on Dec. 13, 2000 was "an anomaly" and that the state has one of the best records in the country as far as keeping inmates locked up. As it stands now, only one Texas inmate is still at large: José Salaz, who escaped from a Beeville prison in 1997 while serving a 35-year sentence for aggravated kidnapping. He is believed to be in Mexico.

Texas officials say that public perception of the state's escape record has been colored by the media exposure of escapes like the "Texas Seven," and the unusual number of breaks from local jails.

But there is no nationwide database that calculates prison breaks, and each state calculates its numbers differently. So state-to-state comparisons are hard to make.

California, with the largest inmate population in the country at 156,000, had 24 escapes in 2000. That same year, Texas had 16 prison breaks. It has the second- largest prison population in the country, 147,000 inmates.

But a larger percentage of inmates that flee Texas prisons are dangerous. California officials say they haven't had an inmate escape from a maximum-security facility in years. The only prison break in Texas last year was Harold Laird, who was serving a 99-year sentence for capital murder. And the most recent prison break, in February, was John William Roland III, who was serving a life sentence for murder. He spent two weeks running from law enforcement before he was captured.

"I think it has less to do with poor supervision than it does with the pressure-cooker situation these inmates are in down there," says Jerome Miller, president and co-founder of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Alexandria, Va.

Even though conditions in Texas prisons have improved in recent years, Dr. Miller says it's clear that they still have a long way to go when inmates feel like they have nothing to lose in attempting a prison break.

"The attitude down there is very aggressive and breeds a lot of violence in the system," he says.

But Texas corrections officials defend their record.

Considering the large number of people incarcerated in Texas, "we see a very minor number of escapes," says Terry Julian, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Mr. Julian suggests that the main reason for prison escapes is human error, or lack of attention on the part of those supervising officers. Even so, a certain number of breakouts should be expected, he says. "You have to understand, these inmates have 24 hours a day to plan an escape."

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