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Texas prison system issues statewide lockdown to combat illegal drugs, inmate violence

By Stephen Simpson, The Texas Tribune

Texas prison system issues statewide lockdown to combat illegal drugs, inmate violence” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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A rise in drug-related violence has prompted the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to issue a statewide lockdown of its prison facilities, according to agency officials.

The action Wednesday means each of the state’s 100 prison facilities will limit the movement of the 129,000 inmates serving out their sentences. It also means that visitation to those incarcerated will be canceled until after a system-wide search for contraband is completed.

“The safety of inmates, staff, and the public is our highest priority,” said Cris Love, TDCJ’s inspector general in a prepared news release. “Illegal drugs within our facilities will not be tolerated. Individuals found smuggling contraband will be arrested and subject to prosecution.”

Amanda Hernandez, spokesperson for the prison agency, said the lockdown follows a rise in inmate violence, including homicides this year.

“So far this year, we have had 16 homicides,” she said. “Last year, we had seven and the year prior we had nine.”

The agency reported that most of the inmate homicides this year have been connected to illegal drugs.

“These incidents have heightened concerns regarding the safety and security of inmates, staff, and the public,” said Bryan Collier, TDCJ’s executive director, in a prepared statement. “A lockdown is a necessary response to confront the root causes of this crisis, enhance security measures, and ensure the well-being of all individuals within our agency. We are committed to finding the narcotics, but also working with the Office of Inspector General and outside law enforcement to dismantle the networks that are trafficking drugs into our systems.”

Agency officials declined to discuss what recent incident prompted the lockdown action nor did they provide an estimate as to how long a lockdown would last.

The prison agency is also completing the rollout of their digital mail program that will go into effect immediately this week. It will require that inmate mail be emailed to a digital mail center operated by the prison agency. From there, the electronic correspondence will be scanned and uploaded to secure tablets made available to inmates.

According to the agency, the switch will combat the rise in incidents where they say paper mailed to the prison has been soaked in synthetic THC – the main psychoactive ingredient of marijuana — or methamphetamines before it is sent to correctional facilities. The TDCJ has also established a tip line for inmates, staff and families to report any suspicious activities or information related to contraband.

Cellphones and drugs have long found their ways inside the secured walls of Texas prisons units.

Former Gov. Rick Perry put 112 prisons on lockdown in 2008 after a man on death row called a state senator from a cell phone he said was smuggled in by a guard. Afterward, the agency bought call jammers and eventually started drug-testing the staff in an attempt to cut down on smuggling.

In 2021, TDCJ officials implemented the Inspect 2 Protect program that put more drug-sniffing dogs into service on visiting days and stricter rules that banned mail except for plain white paper and a few photographs.

That same year, The Texas Tribune and The Marshall Project investigation found that the main source of the drugs, according to more than a dozen people who lived or worked in Texas prisons, were low-paid TDCJ employees in understaffed facilities.

Still, prison officials insisted the drug-sniffing dog program helped fight contraband, arguing the canines stopped more suspicious mail and fewer prisoners were testing positive for illegal drugs.

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