Oliver Bell, chairman of the state prison system’s governing board, on Thursday championed an unorthodox new punishment for prison guards who are convicted of crimes and sentenced to do hard time.
“If you get caught doing wrong, I want you to go back to where you (worked),” Bell announced during a board meeting Thursday in Austin, as surprised prison administrators looked on.
“I think it will be a deterrent — even if we just take them back to that unit and walk them through as an inmate.”
Generally, prison officials consider convicted police and prison guards as among the most likely prisoners to get assaulted — even killed — if they are sent to prison. For that reason, they are usually kept in protective custody while they do their time — and almost never at the same prison where they once worked.
Not since two decades ago when photos of convicted guards adorned a training room in Huntsville — their employee photo framed next to their inmate photo — has any official suggested holding law-breaking guards up to such ridicule as a deterrent to others.
Hundreds of Texas’ 45,000 correctional employees are arrested each year on charges such as violent crimes, drug smuggling and domestic violence. Prison officials don’t know how many are convicted but said many are placed on probation, and relatively few are sent to prison.
Bell insisted his plan, though it sounds unusual, would help make the point that criminal conduct by guards — whether it is smuggling contraband to prisoners, theft or bribery — “is not going to be tolerated at this agency.”
Bell, who is the chief executive of an Austin labor relations consulting business, was appointed chairman of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice board by Gov. Rick Perry in 2007.
Bell’s comments came as the board was briefed on a new program to administer random drug tests to state prison employees, as a way to curb contraband and improve security.
“This is a key part of our public integrity initiatives,” Bell said. “It’s part of what we’ve been doing to upgrade our staffing \u2026 Our message to our employees is: We’re not just going to look at you when you’re new; we’re also going to look at you while you work here.
“If we catch you doing wrong, my goal would be to bring you back to that unit,” Bell said. “If that’s a possibility, if there’s not a safety component involved, that would be the chairman’s preference.”
In recent months, Bell said, he has repeatedly announced his ideas about convicted guards as he has toured some of the state’s 112 prisons. “Usually the response is applause,” he said.
In fact, Bell said he requested several months ago that prison officials take a guard at a Southeast Texas prison who was convicted of a felony back to that prison to set an example to inmates and the correctional officers. He said he was never advised about whether his request was carried out.
Brad Livingston, executive director of the agency, said he did not recall Bell’s request.
John Moriarty, the agency’s inspector general who investigates crimes in prisons, said a correctional officer was convicted several months ago in a contraband-smuggling episode at the Stiles Unit in Beaumont. But he said he doubted that the former officer, as a convict, would be returned to Stiles.
House Corrections Committee Chairman Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin , said he wholeheartedly supports Bell’s intent “that we’re not going to put up with any wrongdoing.”
But, he added, “I’m not sure I’m wildly enthusiastic about doing that. I think we need some more discussion about that.”
As part of the random drug-testing program for corrections employees, and prison and parole officers who have regular contact with convicts — nearly 40,000 of the agency’s 45,000 workers — officials said they plan to test 9,600 a year, or about 800 a month.
The testing is to begin in August, Livingston said.
The program will cost more than $278,000 — at a time when Texas state government is facing a possible $18 billion shortfall, and prison officials are being asked to perhaps trim another 10 percent from their already-strained budget for 2012-13.
Despite that, officials appeared confident they can find the money.
“Our goal is to test about a quarter of the employees each year,” said agency spokeswoman Michelle Lyons. “Everyone in that group would be tested in the next four years.”
Prison officials proposed the program at the urging of House leaders as a way to curb a chronic flow of contraband into the state’s 112 prisons, and as a way to keep drug-impaired employees out of prisons.