By Stephen Simpson, The Texas Tribune
“Texas inmate killed by cellmate during a statewide prison lockdown” 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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Investigators are trying to determine how a Texas inmate was killed inside an East Texas prison that was part of a statewide lockdown this week.
Billy Chemirmir, who was accused of killing 22 elderly women and one man in North Texas, was found dead in his cell Tuesday after investigators say he was killed by his cellmate, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesperson Hannah Haney said. The incident was first reported by The Dallas Morning News late Wednesday.
Chermirmir was an inmate at the 3,818-bed Coffield Unit in Tennessee Colony, an unincorporated community east of Palestine, the same unit where another violent incident between inmate and staff occurred the day before the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced a statewide lockdown of all 100 prisons.
On Sept. 5, an inmate at the Coffield Unit stabbed a correctional officer in a high security unit. TDCJ officers responded to this incident with excessive force and prison system spokesperson Amanda Hernandez told The Texas Tribune established protocols were not followed.
After an internal review of that incident, seven correctional officers were fired and another six officers resigned.
“The inmate is recovering at the hospital,” she said. “This incident was forwarded to the Office of Inspector General for criminal investigation.”
TDCJ did not release the name of the inmate who was hospitalized after he was beaten by correctional officers.
Also on Sept. 5, some 200 miles away in Beaumont, 29-year-old Uriel Neri was killed by fellow inmates at the Mark W. Stiles Unit, according to agency reports. The agency said this incident is still under investigation.
The very next day – Sept. 6 – TDCJ announced a systemwide lockdown of all 100 prisons. The agency denies the violent incidents were the reason for the lockdown, which was supposed to restrict the movement of 129,000 inmates in their custody and allow a series of intense searches for contraband.
Instead, Hernandez pointed to the 16 inmate homicides this year as one of the primary reasons the lockdown was initiated.
“The increase in homicides resulted in implementing it at this time,” Hernandez said. “Last year, we had seven and the year prior we had nine.”
Since the lockdown began, the agency has completed searches in 50 state prisons looking for contraband. Prison officials have so far recovered the following forbidden items: 196 cell phones, 34.5 gallons of alcohol, 274 weapons along with various amounts of amphetamine, fentanyl, cocaine, PCP and synthetic marijuana.
As a result to date, more than 500 criminal investigations into illegal activity involving inmates, staff and prison visitors, have been opened by the TDCJ Office of Inspector General, Hernandez said.
Currently, regular operations including visitations have resumed in 50 of the state’s prisons.
Prison advocates question whether this lockdown is creating more damage than good as rumors of inedible food, lack of showers and crippling isolation are starting to pour out of the prison system. More than two-thirds of Texas prisons are unairconditioned, and restricting movement and showers of inmates when temperatures were still reaching 100 degrees or more outside, could mean more unrest inside.
A TDCJ spokeswoman said ice water is distributed to the inmates throughout the day and that water is available in their cells through their sinks.
Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, said she applauds the agency’s efforts to try and get a handle on the violence in their prison system, but believes a statewide lockdown was an extreme solution.
“This is taking a hammer to a situation that probably needs more of a scalpel,” she said. “It’s a very heavy-handed approach that is going to cause a bunch of other problems that they’re going to need to address.”
Deitch said when a prison lockdown is implemented an inmate is barred from contacting friends or family. She said the mental stress this will cause in the prison system will be felt long after the lockdown is lifted.
“It creates a lot of tension when you are stuck with one other person in what is pretty much a bathroom and you aren’t able to get out of your cell to move around or participate in recreation,” she said. “So there’s a lot of tension, which also translates into more violence with one’s cellmates, dorm mates and even tension between staff and the people incarcerated.”
Although state prison agency officials say 16 inmate homicides have occurred this year their online custodial death reports revealed only 11 homicides this year. That’s because, Hernandez said, the agency records online were filed before TDCJ officials received final toxicology and autopsy reports from local hospitals and medical centers.
Since lockdown began, 20 inmates have died according to TDCJ custodial death reports. The manner of death in 13 of the incidents was deemed “natural” while four cases remain pending due to lack of autopsy results and three people died by suicide. This number doesn’t include the murder of Chemirmir as the custodial death report was not posted as of Thursday morning.
Family members and friends of inmates also reached out to The Texas Tribune this past week concerned about the heat in the prisons, a lack of cold water, and small amounts of food.
“This will be the second long time lockdown, for Hughes Unit, within the last six months” said a parent of one of the inmates, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation toward her son. “My son lost 15 pounds and began to develop claustrophobia from being in the small space and with the heat being 106 degrees for so long. Now, it’s happening again.”
Texas prisoners are also posting TikTok videos showing the food being served to them during the lockdown calling it inedible.
Hernandez, spokesperson for the prison agency, denied the allegations of poor food quality in their prison facilities and said videos or pictures circulating online didn’t represent the meals provided to their inmate population.
“TDCJ has staff across the state monitoring the quality and quantity of food. During the lockdown, meals are provided three times a day, with one of the meals being a hot meal,” she said. “Additionally, TDCJ is adding items from the commissary to the sack meals twice a week.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/09/21/texas-prisons-lockdown-inmate-killed/.
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