Three Texas inmates have died at the hands of prison officers as use of force continues to rise

Prison officers are using force more often on inmates in Texas.
Prison officers are using force more often on inmates in Texas.
Angela Piazza for The Texas Tribune

Gary Ryan was less than three months away from getting out of prison — and his family was doing everything right.

His brother-in-law lined up a job for him at his company. His nephew Corey Anderson planned to give him his old truck. Anderson also fixed up a house on a family property where his uncle could live.

Ryan, 58, was serving time for drunkenly spitting on a Dallas police officer, according to court records. He’d been in prison nearly five years, and his relatives were anxious to see him at dinners in their Dallas-area homes to help him get his life back on track.

“I mean, he was in and out of jail, we all know that, but we had hope. Since mom died, and her wishes were to help him, that’s what our plans were,” Anderson said, sitting with his sister at a table covered with childhood photos of his mother and Ryan. “We were doing everything we needed to do.

“And then we got the call,” he said.

His uncle had died.

When the warden of Huntsville’s Estelle Unit first called with the tragic news, he mentioned cardiac arrest, Anderson said. But in a follow-up phone call, Anderson was told a prison officer had been arrested in connection with Ryan’s death.

Ryan died in September 2018 from blunt-force head trauma nearly two weeks after correctional officer D’Andre Glasper took him to the floor in the showers while he was handcuffed — hours after Ryan had spit on Glasper and a prison supervisor told the officer to stay away from the inmate.

Gary Ryan is shown in a collection of old family photographs.
Gary Ryan is shown in a collection of old family photographs.

Glasper was arrested on suspicion of aggravated assault by a public servant about a week after the incident and was released on bond the next day. More than a year later, his case has yet to be taken to court, leaving Ryan’s family to anxiously await the slow crawl of the justice system.

Ryan’s is one of three Texas prison deaths in as many years that have resulted in criminal charges being pursued against correctional officers involved in forceful encounters. In September, a former guard was tried in the 2017 slamming death of a prisoner. And prosecution is moving forward against another officer involved in the October fatal beating of an inmate.

The cases are a rarity in the Texas prison system — an official labeled the three criminal investigations into the officers an “anomaly” — but the homicides coincide with a troubling trend. Over the last decade, while the Texas prison population has decreased by thousands, the number of times officers have used force against inmates has jumped.

In 2009, there were 6,624 instances of staff using force against inmates in Texas prisons, according to a report from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that tracks “major use of force incidents.” Last year, there were nearly 11,000 documented incidents.

Pinpointing a reason for the uptick can be difficult because prisons, as an industry, remain largely opaque. Criminal prosecutions and trials can bring details of specific incidents into public view, but their rarity makes it difficult to zero in on trends fueling the aggression. And prison officials’ explanations of why force is more frequent differ from the ones suggested by criminal justice reform advocates.

A TDCJ spokesperson said the increase of use-of-force cases is paired with a rise in the number of violent and mentally ill prisoners over the decade. Despite the overall population decrease, nearly 3,000 more prisoners were locked up for violent offenses in 2019 than 2009 — a rise of 4%, according to agency statistics. The number of mentally ill inmates went up by a third, an increase of more than 7,000 people. TDCJ reports also show serious assaults by inmates on staff have fluctuated. Last year, there were 106 assaults — 12% more than in 2009, compared with a 66% rise in prison officers’ major use-of-force cases.

But the climbing number of force cases is happening in a system plagued by persistent and dangerous staffing shortages and high turnover. An agency report from December showed the state’s prisons were short more than 4,500 officers, or 18% of authorized positions. Prison employees and reform advocates often point to these problems and a lack of training as reasons why force is being used more often.

“I don’t know that there is any significant change in the nature of the incarcerated population … but where there is a difference is in staffing levels,” said Doug Smith, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a reform advocacy group.

Turnover is highest among new hires, but they aren’t the only officers leaving. Lance Lowry, vice president of the Correctional Officers Association of Texas, said experienced officers are leaving more often, frustrated with pay, benefits and “just an overall philosophy that the officers are expendable.”

In the three recent deaths in which criminal charges were or are being pursued against a prison employee, the officers were all in their 20s. None had worked at TDCJ for more than four years. Glasper was 22 and had worked for the prison system less than two years when Ryan was killed.

“You need more experienced officers that have better inmate management skills to handle a lot of these situations,” Lowry said. “Veteran officers know how to deescalate the situation, where a newer officer may not have the skills to do that.”

Lowry agreed with TDCJ that the inmate population has more special needs than it used to, but he said that just emphasizes a necessity for more training and treating corrections as a skilled profession.

In Ryan’s case, few details have been publicly disclosed, aside from an initial news release, even though he died more than a year ago. Smith said a lack of transparency in TDCJ doesn’t allow the public or even Ryan’s family to know whether training is to blame or if this was an unavoidable issue.

Anderson hopes criminal prosecution can shine a light on the incident, and he may soon get his wish.

Details that would likely remain within prison walls due to security concerns can be revealed through court proceedings. And Glasper’s criminal case could go to a Walker County grand jury for possible indictment this month, according to Jack Choate, head of the state’s Special Prosecution Unit, which pursues crimes that occur in prisons.

“We feel like it is our job to make sure that this story gets told, so that this story doesn’t die in the dark part of a prison,” he said.

Challenges in prosecution

Prison is a notoriously tough environment for everyone inside, and officers are allowed to use physical force on inmates to keep control. That force can mean pressing an inmate up against a wall or spraying a prisoner with chemical agents.

The prison system’s spokesperson, Jeremy Desel, said that “there are occasions within a correctional setting when it becomes necessary for staff to use force in order to gain compliance of an offender to maintain a safe and secure environment for offenders and staff.”

But in cases where force may cross the line into criminal behavior, TDCJ’s Office of the Inspector General steps in to investigate. The office doesn’t review all use-of-force incidents, but it investigates any time an inmate dies and must be notified when someone is being transported for medical care after an incident involving force, said Joe Buttitta, deputy inspector general. The investigation happens alongside an internal TDCJ disciplinary investigation.

In cases where force is deemed to be excessive, TDCJ’s discipline ranges from suspension to firing. Rarely, criminal charges are pursued after the inspector general’s office hands off a completed criminal investigation to the Special Prosecution Unit or local district attorney’s office.

Since 2015, 19 prison officers have been sentenced in use-of-force cases, Buttitta said. None involved an inmate’s death. Most defendants got a combination of probation, fines or community service, according to data from the Special Prosecution Unit. Few involved jail time.

The officers were all sentenced for the crime of official oppression — a misdemeanor offense for public servants who intentionally mistreat others in their jobs.

Even in an inmate’s homicide, convicting a correctional officer can be an uphill climb. Finding someone guilty of murder requires showing an intent to kill, a bar that is hard to clear for Texas prison officers. Even assault charges can be hard to prove because state law gives officers more discretion to use force to maintain prison security. And those pressing charges feel swaying a jury can be a challenge since there is often a stigma against prisoners, some of whom are locked up for violent offenses themselves.

“We know full well that there are a lot of biases against these cases,” Choate said.

His team still took former Sgt. Lou Joffrion to trial last year in the 2017 slamming death of inmate David Witt.

A right to force

Former prison Sgt. Lou Joffrion, left, was tried for aggravated assault after the death of inmate David Witt.
Former prison Sgt. Lou Joffrion, left, was tried for aggravated assault after the death of inmate David Witt.
Brazoria County/TDCJ

On Aug. 16, 2017, Witt sat in a communal room at the Darrington Unit in Brazoria County, refusing orders to return to his cell, according to the case lawyers.

At 41, Witt had been in prison since 2005 on robbery charges. At 24, Joffrion was four years into his TDCJ tenure and had just finished six months of disciplinary probation for a use-of-force incident involving Witt.

Surveillance video shows Witt calmly talking to two guards. When Joffrion entered, Witt stood up, took his shirt off and walked across the room, taking prison phones off their hooks.

Witt eventually kicked off his shoes and stripped naked, but he made no threatening moves. After a minute or so of talking, he put his clothes back on and began to walk out of the room with the officers.

But as he walked by a table, the footage shows, Witt casually grabbed the handle of a water cooler and slowly pulled it to the floor. Joffrion shoved past a colleague to get to Witt, who put his hands and body against the wall, resisting handcuffs until another guard approached. Witt then submitted to being cuffed, and a guard began walking him away. In a second, Witt resisted, trying to pull the other way instead.

Joffrion bent down behind Witt, wrapped his arms around the man’s thighs, lifted him at least a foot straight into the air and slammed him into the concrete floor. Witt appears to have been immediately knocked unconscious. He died later that day from blunt force injuries. Joffrion resigned pending disciplinary action from TDCJ and was arrested months later.

Surveillance video revealed the incident between inmate David Witt and former prison Sgt. Lou Joffrion.
Surveillance video revealed the incident between inmate David Witt and former prison Sgt. Lou Joffrion.

These harrowing scenes were first shown to the public at Joffrion’s trial. There, jurors watched the footage over and over, according to Joffrion’s lawyer, Connie Williams.

Williams believes the prison system failed both his client and Witt. He thought Witt needed to be somewhere with more mental health services, and Joffrion needed more training. Choate said his team proved the aggravated assault case “beyond all doubt, not just a reasonable doubt.”

In September, Joffrion was found not guilty of aggravated assault by a public servant. Choate speculated that the jury may have opted for acquittal because Joffrion didn’t continue to punch Witt after he was down and unconscious.

“The big argument for the state of Texas was he used too much force in taking him to the ground,” said Williams. “It’s just a very subjective kind of thing — the law of the state of Texas says correctional officers have the right to use force.”

“Crisis mode”

About a month after Joffrion’s trial, another Texas prisoner was killed.

Frank Digges died after a use-of-force incident at the Wynne Unit at Huntsville.
Frank Digges died after a use-of-force incident at the Wynne Unit at Huntsville.
TDCJ

In October, 63-year-old Frank Digges refused to exit his cell at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville after being assaultive toward staff, said Desel, TDCJ’s spokesperson. Digges had been in prison for more than 30 years on a life sentence for aggravated robbery.

A five-person team was deployed to get him out of his cell, but things went wrong. A prison death report says Digges died after being struck “in the back of the head several times with a closed fist, which caused trauma to the brain.”

“When you’re just going in there with a five-man extraction team to pull somebody out … I mean, I think five guys can take him,” Buttitta said. “When you look at that … it’s like, ‘OK, so why is there so much blunt force trauma to the head?'”

Two ranking officials involved in the incident were demoted, Desel said. Yancey Lett, a 28-year-old officer who had been with TDCJ for less than three years, was fired.

Now, Lett is facing criminal charges. He has not been arrested, but Choate said he hopes to take Lett’s case to a grand jury at the same time as Glasper’s case this month. Lett’s lawyer did not return phone calls or emails to the Tribune.

Digges’ death — combined with those of Witt and Ryan — has sounded alarm bells. The three homicide investigations in three years, while unusual, are happening in a system of prison officers using force more often.

In response to questions about the upward trend, Desel said TDCJ has changed use-of-force training in recent years, and it has added new deescalation and mental health awareness training. But reformists, employee representatives and Ryan’s nephew say it’s not enough.

Lowry, with the officers’ association, acknowledged training changes have been made. But, he said, the system still lacks oversight and standards. The Texas Legislature in 2015 acknowledged the large share of state prisoners who have mental health disorders and passed a bill to legally require relevant training and continuing education for correctional officers.

But Gov. Greg Abbott, calling the training requirements “rigid and arbitrary,” vetoed the legislation.

Lowry said that in any case, the best way to learn deescalation tactics is by working in the prisons. Consistently high turnover and a shortage of officers means there is less and less experience in the units, putting the agency in “a crisis mode.”

“It’s a hands-on experience that gains you the ability to control the situation,” he said. “Unfortunately, you can’t just teach everything in a classroom setting. You have to have practical experience.”

Never the same

Although Ryan died more than a year ago, his family is still in the dark about what exactly happened that day.

Former prison officer D'Andre Glasper, left, was arrested on suspicion of aggravated assault in the death of inmate Gary Ryan.
Former prison officer D’Andre Glasper, left, was arrested on suspicion of aggravated assault in the death of inmate Gary Ryan.
Walker County/TDCJ

Anderson, Ryan’s nephew, said his uncle was a person who “didn’t take crap from nobody,” which is what usually landed him in trouble. He’d been in and out of jail and prison for most of his adult life. His longest stint lasted 12 years, after he was convicted in an aggravated assault in 1991. Anderson said he was never the same after that.

In its initial statement released in September 2018, TDCJ said Ryan hit his head on the floor when Glasper was using force to get him flat on his stomach in the showers Aug. 30. Glasper said Ryan, who was handcuffed, had become aggressive and was making derogatory remarks.

Ryan, unresponsive and bleeding from his head, was flown to a Houston hospital and died nearly two weeks later. TDCJ said at the time the agency supported prosecuting Glasper “to the fullest extent of the law.”

Glasper’s attorney, Paul Darrow, said his client “is innocent, and we look forward to his complete exoneration when all the facts become available.”

Anderson faults the prison system for his uncle’s death, saying the agency should have better hiring qualifications and ensure two officers take prisoners to the showers. But he still wants Glasper to be held personally accountable — even though he forgives him.

“He messed up, he made a mistake,” Anderson said. “But you took somebody’s life, you have to pay the price.”

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