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High Profile Inmates a Security Concern for Texas Prisons
By Glen Castlebury
Published: 01/14/2002

The Texas prison system's overriding concern in handling celebrity and other high profile inmates can be summed up by Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame theory. That concern is further exemplified by recalling Jack Ruby's jailhouse slaying of presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

'You focus less on what the big-name inmate might do and worry more that some misguided no-name inmate will try to grab 15 minutes of fame by making a hit on some high profile offender,' says Mike Countz, whose position as director of classification for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) puts him at the center of deciding where to house the famous and the infamous inmates when they arrive in prison.

Danger Level

Countz points out that for many high profile inmates, the danger level depends both on 'what they did' as well as 'who they are.' There is no better case in point than that of Yolanda Saldivar who would have entered TDCJ's female unit in Gatesville as just another convicted murderer with a life sentence in 1995 - except that Saldivar's victim was no less than Tejano music singing idol Selena. Saldivar's arrival at the prison was covered by more than 50 news reporters and cameras. Although there have been no threats on Saldivar's life while in prison, emotions still run high among Selena's faithful fans and six years later, Saldivar continues to be housed in protective custody in an isolated area of the unit. 

Plans and decisions for housing high profile offenders are a collaborative effort between the agency's executive director, the head of the Institutional Division, the classification office and the warden of the receiving unit. Local law enforcement and the Texas Department of Public Safety also are often involved because of the logistics of moving high profile offenders across the vast reaches of Texas. Understandably, local jurisdictions usually are anxious to transfer notorious offenders as soon as possible after trial and sentencing.

All those elements came into consideration for one highly publicized murderer even before he went to trial. White supremacist and ex-convict William King became a parole violator by virtue of his arrest in the murder of James Byrd, a black man dragged to death behind a pickup truck near the East Texas town of Jasper, a homicide that drew national media coverage.

Administrative Segregation

Because King was a parole violator, TDCJ was able to accommodate Jasper authorities by holding him in a state prison while he awaited trial. Due to the racist overtones of the murder, King was kept in administrative segregation at a prison near Jasper before the trial and has been held in administrative segregation on death row since his conviction in 1999. 

Administrative segregation is the most frequently used precaution for high profile inmates, particularly serial killers whose horrific crimes inflame the inmate population as much as the general public. But that was not the case with serial killer Elmer Wayne Henley when he entered prison in 1974 with six life sentences for the suspected murder of 27 young boys. Like most newcomers to the system throughout history, Henley was sent to a prison farm unit on the hot, muggy Texas coastal plains, where he was on a hoe squad - agriculture's version of a chain gang - chopping weeds in the cotton fields. 

Protective Custody

As the years went by, Henley encountered no trouble and by 1985, he had earned his way off the farm and was in the general population in the Ellis Unit in Huntsville. It was in the mid-1980s that prison gangs made their earliest appearance and gang-instigated violence became near-epidemic. Though Henley was never suspected of gang involvement, officers at Ellis picked up intelligence that one gang had Henley on its murder list. Henley was placed in administrative segregation and kept there until the system quelled the gang violence. He has long since moved back to the general population, where today, his notoriety of a quarter-century ago is virtually unknown to new generations and staff alike.

Years later, a planned hit thwarted by good prison intelligence probably saved the life of another of TDCJ's most famous inmates who originally was placed in the general population. Donald Yarbrough was an unknown Houston lawyer who won an upset election victory as a justice on Texas' highest criminal appeals court, but his tenure on the high court was cut short - he served only 77 days - by a perjury conviction, which landed him in the Walls unit at Huntsville in 1983. Since he had never practiced criminal law and since he was not on the bench long enough to rule on any significant cases, officials felt he probably entered prison without a list of enemies. Thus, he was placed in the general population and got along with no problems - until a senior officer at the unit received confidential information that Yarbrough was a marked man. The defrocked judge immediately was placed in solitary confinement and a search of his cell revealed a bizarre plot. The light bulb in Yarbrough's cell had been carefully punctured, filled with lighter fluid and screwed back into its socket, primed for an explosion at the flip of a switch. The perpetrator was never identified and Yarbrough was transferred to federal custody shortly thereafter.

Another high profiler, inmate David Ruiz, with nearly 40 years in and out of Texas prisons, is easily the dean of TDCJ's security classification problems. Ruiz probably could have lived out his prison life in obscurity as a garden variety armed robber and parole violator, However, in 1971, he filed a federal lawsuit challenging many practices of the Texas system, notably the use of inmate 'building tenders' to supervise and discipline other inmates, the lack of quality medical care and access to legal information, and crowding. Although the Ruiz lawsuit led to many major reforms in the Texas system and a consent decree signed by Texas officials in 1992 makes the reforms permanent, the federal court has refused to close the case.

Earlier last year, the court released the system from its control in all but three areas: inmate safety, use of force and use of administrative segregation. The court's continued jurisdiction on the inmate safety issue has a special irony regarding Ruiz. Although he has never been harmed or seriously threatened in Texas prisons, at one point in the late 1980s, Texas officials transferred Ruiz to the federal facility in Terre Haute, Ind., for added protection, and it was there that he was stabbed by another inmate - the only in-prison injury he has ever suffered. Afterward, Ruiz requested transfer back to Texas. Today, Ruiz is in administrative segregation because of suspected prison gang affiliation.

TDCJ had plans in place for bringing back the so-called Texas Seven, who escaped in December 2000 from the Connally Unit in South Texas and killed a police officer in Irving before being captured five weeks later in Colorado. TDCJ would have placed the fugitives in administrative segregation at six different units (the seventh committed suicide). However, TDCJ followed routine policy in deferring Dallas County officials who asked that the escapees be kept in the county jail until their trials.

Celebrity Considerations

True celebrities entering into prison on offenses that do not generate passionate feelings are less of a problem from a security risk standpoint, but they still require special consideration, as was the case when Olympic gold medal runner and star Dallas Cowboy receiver 'Bullet' Bob Hayes came into the system in 1979 on a drug conviction. The very personable Hayes was assigned gym duty in a unit that had a concentration of young offenders, a position prison officials said proved to be a positive experience for both the former athlete and the young inmates.

Former TDCJ Director Wayne Scott admits that when dealing with stars like Hayes, 'there is an element of staff adoration for some hero inmates and it's usually not a problem but you have to be aware of it.' Scott recently retired from TDCJ after a 30-year career that saw him rise through the ranks from correctional officer to director.

While Hayes, who was 37 when he entered prison, was assigned to work with young offenders, singer David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young was sent in the other direction when he entered the prison in 1986 on a drug conviction. Crosby, who was 45 when he came in, was assigned to a unit specifically because of its older, more settled population. It was a unit in which the general population mirrored Crosby's profile - older, very low potential risk of escape and short sentences (Crosby served only five months). This profile is imposed on both of the very old units, Wynne and the Walls, which literally are in the city of Huntsville. 

Other celebrity athletes who served their time in general population without incident have included former football stars Dexter Manley of the Washington Redskins and Warren McVea of the Kansas City Chiefs, both on drug convictions. Charles Harrelson, famous as the father of television and film star Woody Harrelson and infamous as the convicted assassin of a federal judge in San Antonio, began his time in the general population and got along well for two years, but after his involvement in a suspected escape plan, he was kept in administrative segregation until his transfer to federal custody.

Media Access

Besides coping with placement of high profile inmates, the prison system must deal with demands from the media for interviews. All inmates - celebrity or not - are off-limits during their first three weeks in the system, as they go through exhaustive diagnostics (except those bound for death row, who go there immediately). After diagnostics and finally arrival at their first permanent unit assignment, inmates remain off-limits to the media until, in the judgment of the unit warden, they have successfully adjusted to incarceration. 

There is no stated limit on the number of media interviews an offender may grant. Death row interviews are permitted one day per week during a two-hour time slot. Each interview is limited to 30 minutes, but that may be shortened to 15 minutes when more than one media outlet wishes to interview the same inmate. Interviews are strictly one inmate and one reporter; nothing resembling a press conference is permitted. TDCJ strictly avoids anything that could be interpreted as influencing an inmate's decision on granting interviews, but new inmates may be counseled that early widespread media attention in some cases has resulted in the offender being harrassed and labeled 'Hollywood' by other inmates. 

Other than death row, the only limit on media interviews is the unit's staff resources for escorting the inmate from the housing or work area to the interview room; this has not been a problem. With 116 units, no one unit ever experiences such frequency of media requests that would become a problem. All media interviews must be requested in advance, cleared by the Public Information Office through the warden and of course agreed to by the inmate. All interviews are face-to-face; telephone interviews have never been permitted.

Finally, there is the case of the star who never came. Earlier last year, TDCJ learned through the Houston news media that the system might receive another famous former athlete. But to the embarrassment of the media, the offender involved turned out to be just an otherwise unknown burglar. The media had reported - complete with photographs - the arrest and probable parole revocation of a Houston city bus driver identified as former Dallas Cowboy hero Golden Richards. However, it turned out that the real Golden Richards is a law-abiding citizen in his native state of Utah, while one Gordon Marley Richards Jr. of Houston, a convicted burglar who apparently often claimed to be the former football player, was being brought in to face parole revocation.

Size is clearly an advantage to the Texas prison system when placing high profile and high-risk inmates. With 116 units spread across the state, including five new supermax units, officials can find a suitable and safe place for whatever and whomever comes in. The system has its own regional hospital units and psychiatric facilities to meet special needs. But in the end, as in all aspects of the corrections profession, the ultimate success of even the best placement decision depends on the skills of the men and women who staff the facilities. 

Glen Castlebury is assistant director of public information for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. This article originally appeared in the October 2001 edition of Corrections Today and is reprinted with permission by the American Correctional Association


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