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Burden of Proof

How Did Seven Convicts Escape a Maximum-Security Prison in Texas?

Aired January 13, 2001 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: They overpowered 13 prison employees and drove off unchallenged in a prison truck leaving officers bound in a closet with bags over their heads.

Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, find out how seven convicts escaped of -- escaped from a maximum-security prison in Texas.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GARY JOHNSON, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE: My primary mission is public safety and to keep these people incarcerated, and we failed that day to do that.

ALEJANDRO MARROQUIN, CORRECTIONS OFFICER: They broke my nose, they separated my shoulder, they put a knife to my throat and you're either going to fight back or you're going to die one way or the other.

JAYNE HAWKINS, MOTHER OF SLAIN OFFICER: Other people will most likely get hurt in capturing these people. It's going to break my -- my heart is already broken.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

While seven prisoners were escaping from a Kennedy, Texas, prison last month, a correction officer being held hostage tripped a silent alarm to alert other security personnel. But a fellow officer at the corrections unit ignored the distress call. This is among the many enlightening details from a report released yesterday by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: The report points a finger at human error but at least one of the corrections officers accused prison leaders of "scapegoating" employees. The prisoners, considered armed and dangerous, are still on the lamb.

COSSACK: And joining us today from Dallas is Charles Terrell, former Chair of the Texas Criminal Justice System. VAN SUSTEREN: Joining us from Houston is former FBI Special Agent Don Clark and here in Washington, Heather Law (ph), Adisa Bushay (ph) and Shane Woodall (ph). In our back row, Robert Tudor (ph) and Bob Robinson.

Let me go first to you, Charles. What's your reaction to the report regarding these seven who are still at large?

CHARLES TERRELL, FORMER CHAIR OF THE TEXAS CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM: I think the report was comprehensive. I think they've tried to do a good job on the report. I think there's some things they can't say because they'd have to deal with our legislature ...

VAN SUSTEREN: Well let me zero in right on there.

TERRELL: ... and they can't say it from a political standpoint.

VAN SUSTEREN: The minute you say something can't be said I want to know what can't be said.

TERRELL: What can't be said is our guards are greatly underpaid for the danger they're in. Our inmate population has hardened considerably with flat-time sentencing. These guys and many, many, many others have nothing to lose. The guard pay is low, the turnover is high and what they didn't say was how long these guards, the ones that had made mistakes, had been there, how well trained they were and how experienced they were so that's one issue. And the other issue is they're dealing with an entirely different inmate population then we used to be dealing with. We have so many offenders that have nothing to lose by assaulting a guard, and guard assaults are up tremendously, and by trying to escape. These seven knew the system, they also knew that many of the alarms are faulty and that many officers just ignored the alarm system wide.

COSSACK: Charles, the union officials, I have a quote from union officials, they say, representing prison guards, say the Connally Unit was understaffed by 22 officers at the time of the escape, including a guard or a correctioned officer who should have been positioned at the gate where the inmates left. Is chronic understaffing a problem?

TERRELL: Well the report says that understaffing didn't have anything to do with this incident. You can't help but believe that it -- that understaffing has to do with an overall problem. I think we're down 10 to 15 percent overall on guards and the turnover of the ones they do hire is way high, more than it should be. Whether or not that had to do with this incident is debatable, but I think that 22 was just on that one shift.

VAN SUSTEREN: Charles, I want to talk about the -- I've been looking through the report and I heard the remark that Roger made about the understaffing, but when you look at the report and look at the area in which this happened, it was in the maintenance area which is where this incident started. When we look to see whether or not that this was an understaffing issue do we only look to where this occurred within the facility and if so, it says that at the time of the incident, before the incident there were 11 maintenance supervisors for 26 offenders. At the time the incident began there was one supervisor for six offenders.

TERRELL: Well that's one of the obvious mistakes that people made and everything that had to go right for the escapees went right. No, they should not have been left in there with one person. They used an old rouse of not going to the commissary as they should of and they were -- the people working with them were obviously lulled into such a comfort level by inmate planning that they fell for it.

COSSACK: Joining us now by telephone is Brian Olsen of the corrections guard union.

Brian, I have a statistic that says that the beginning salary for corrections officers in Texas is $18,000 a year. It goes up to $28,000 a year which makes Texas 43rd nationally in the country on corrections officers salaries. Is this something that you think plays into the fact that perhaps those corrections officers that you have in your union who are doing the job perhaps are not as good as they should be?

BRIAN OLSEN, CORRECTIONS GUARD UNION: I'm not going to suggest they're not as good as they should be, I'm just going to suggest that the turnover rate is immense. You're getting the veteran officers that are leaving in record numbers. It's a revolving door. You've got new, inexperienced officers coming in at a record rate thus you're going through accelerated training, you're rushing them through. The training is a glaring problem that sticks out from this whole incident in the report that I've seen. That's one of the things that they're going to have to fix. I don't suggest that the officers they have now are bad, it's just it takes years of experience to learn how to be a correctional officer. To me you have to have at least five years before you really know the job but they don't ...

VAN SUSTEREN: Charles, ...

OLSEN: ... have the veterans around anymore.

VAN SUSTEREN: Charles, here's the thing that distresses me is that in late 1990 a man named Mr. Gruelly (ph), and correct me if I'm wrong on this pronunciation, escaped from Huntsville, another facility. He was on death row and there were six others that attempted to escape with him unsuccessfully. At the time there was a report prepared, presumably the state legislature saw that report, and there were essentially the same issues about supervision, about the -- whether or not there was human error and there seemed to be at that time the -- this legislature said or at least people in Texas says we're really going to solve this problem. Well now a year later we have a police officer shot in the head, run over by people who may be these seven, at least they're accused of it, what do you make of that? Is your legislature just asleep at the wheel?

TERRELL: Well, I don't think anybody's purposely asleep at the wheel and the escape at the old death row unit had to do a lot with the unit itself. It was an outdated unit. But I'm going to have to say what people in the legislature and in Austin don't want to hear, we have a $1 billion to a $2 billion problem here. The guard pay issue and the guard staffing is part of it but the use of inmate labor is the other part.

Our system depends on inmate labor but we have more and more people serving flat time long sentences like these fellows were serving 50 years to life. They had nothing to lose. One of them had a quote, "what do we lose if we kill you?" They don't have anything to lose and I think we have to look at where we use inmate labor and how we reclassify murderers and rapists to a minimum end (ph) trustee status.

Now if you don't use them for those jobs that means you have to hire outside people and that's going to cost a lot of money but sooner or later you've got to pay the fiddler. You can't have safer streets, you can't have a long time -- or violent offenders in for long-term sentences without paying for it. Building brick and mortar is one thing but you've got operating costs and operating costs reflect in safety or non-safety.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we're going to take a break. Up next, seven dangerous men still at large. Where could they be? Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: On December 13th seven prisoners escaped a maximum security facility in Kennedy, Texas. Despite national exposure and the resources of the FBI the manhunt continues. Let's go to Don Clark in Houston, Texas.

Don, you were, of course, with the FBI. It seems that the seven, at least in my obviously na

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