|Texas Prison Program Aims To Ensure Inmate Safety|
|By Meghan Mandeville, News Research Reporter|
Inmates sometimes threaten other inmates. Offenders sometimes assault other offenders. Prisoners sometimes feel unsafe. These are unfortunate, but common circumstances in correctional facilities nationwide. To better handle these situations, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has developed the Safe Prison Program, which streamlines policies and procedures related to offender-on-offender assaults, extortion, and life-endangerment.
"[The Safe Prison Program] is a comprehensive approach that sharpens our focus on providing our offenders with a safe environment in which to do their time," said Doug Dretke, Director of TDCJ's Correctional Institutions Division. "[It] pulls together all of the things that we do."
Inmate classification, officer and staff training, policies and procedures all fall under the broad umbrella of the Safe Prison Program, which was mandated by the state Legislature in 2001 to formalize the system's efforts to provide a safe prison environment.
Although many of the practices outlined by the program were already in place prior to its inception, the Texas prison system and its inmates have benefited from its development.
"We have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for our offenders in a very complex prison environment that has certainly every dynamic of people living together," said Dretke. "[The Safe Prison Program] heightens our awareness and our focus very much on our critical responsibilities in this area."
Eliminating Threats Through Enhanced Protection
One area addressed by the program is protective custody. A very low percentage of vulnerable offenders, those who are most susceptible to the predatory advances of other inmates, are placed in this special designation.
"Protective custody for us is a form of administrative segregation," said Dretke. Inmates who are placed in protective custody are "under the highest threats, typically involving gang violence," he said.
Inmates can be placed in protective custody at several stages: during their intake classification, as a result of problems in a unit or through a complaint to an officer.
"Most offenders are in protective custody because that's where they want and need to be," said Dretke about the restrictive form of detention that confines only 106 of TDCJ's nearly 26,000 inmates for nearly 23 hours each day.
"It's absolutely not an optimum situation, but at the same time it's a critical safety issue," said Dretke about protective custody. "[An offender's] confinement is very restrictive for his safety," he said. "At the same time we work very hard to make appropriate allowances for [an offender's] well-being."
Although inmates in protective custody are fed in their cells, they do, "under very controlled circumstances," have access to some programming, facility libraries, and visitation, said Dretke.
While protective custody is an available option, other practices outlined by the Safe Prison Program allow the system to use less restrictive means of protection when addressing the needs of offenders who feel threatened.
"What you try to do is provide a safe environment without having to use a restrictive environment like protective custody," said Dretke. "The best response is to be able to find them safe housing in a safe environment," he added, noting that the offenders can then work and participate in recreational activities in a group setting unlike inmates in protective custody, who have only one hour each day for solitary activities.
Aside from protective custody, inmates who require some type of separation from other offenders can be placed into safekeeping, a less restrictive means of preserving their safety.
"We classify offenders into [safekeeping] who are potentially vulnerable in a full general population setting," said Dretke. "These offenders have all of the same policy guidelines and allowances of any general population offender," he said. Safekeeping housing units work and receive programming along with the general inmate population but they "eat as groups and recreate as groups," he said.
In addition to protective custody and safekeeping, there are other options for inmates who feel threatened.
"It starts with everything from housing changes to unit transfers," said Dretke, noting that if an inmate becomes stigmatized at one prison, he or she can be effectively relocated to another of Texas' 105 correctional facilities. "Policy outlines all of the different responses that can occur when the offender is vulnerable," he said.
Increasing Officer and Offender Awareness
Offenders are vulnerable for many different reasons--from being smaller, weaker, older, or of a different sexual orientation, he said. To ensure a safe environment, all staff are trained in techniques and policies that emphasize inmate safety.
Newly hired correctional officers receive four hours of training on the Safe Prison Program, where they learn about different policies and approaches to dealing with offender-on-offender incidents, said Dretke. At the unit level, all of the departmental staff receive training as well, he adds.
"It's very specific training about our policies and about what to look for," said Dretke. "We have administrative directives on security requirements for at-risk, vulnerable offenders," he added.
When incidents occur between these vulnerable offenders and their adversaries, corrections staff members typically place threatened inmates into a transient status, removing them from the general inmate population in order to investigate the problem.
"Many times we don't have any evidence to indicate to us [what actually took place]" said Dretke. "Part of our training is paying attention to all of the things around us," he said, so officers can make informed decisions while working with the inmate "on identifying exactly what happened."
In addition to teaching officers and staff about appropriate responses to offender-on-offender incidents, another objective of the Safe Prison Program is to educate inmates about such occurrences.
The goal is to show inmates that "if you're sexually assaulted, if you're being extorted, these are the things that are available to you," said Dretke about the different levels of protection offered at TDCJ facilities.
While the training and education of both corrections staff and offenders help to maintain the safety of inmates, the Safe Prison Program also recognizes the role that technology can play.
"We've added camera systems to increase our level of surveillance and oversight," said Dretke. Since the program has been in place, the tracking and reporting of sexual assaults has also been improved, providing statistical data about where allegations of assault occur more frequently and helping to better define policies and training procedures, said Dretke.
"That's an important focus [of the Safe Prison Program]" said Dretke about improving the standards that already exist. "We're going to continue to be extremely focused on making our prisons a safer place," he said.
To facilitate this task, TDCJ is hiring a Safe Prison Program Coordinator this month to analyze data and to continue to evaluate what needs to be done to make Texas' prisons safe.
"Underneath this Safe Prison Project caption, we have taken all of our policies and processes and put them all together," Dretke said. "As we continue to work on our institutional culture within our prisons, it's a wonderful tool and resource to be able to talk about our Safe Prison Program."
To learn more about the Safe Prison Program, contact TDCJ Plans and Operations at (936) 437-6706
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