TDCJ prison union chief questions officer's actions after seeing ABC-13 video

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Prison rights advocate calls video of prison supervisor shooting tear gas rifle into inmate crowd "pretty sick stuff." TDCJ has said the department is retraining some officers. (KTRK)

The union chief who represents correctional officers working in the state prison system said Friday that the actions of a prison supervisor who shot a tear gas rifle in a jail dormitory in May were patently out of line and pointed the blame at the lack of training provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

"The agency did not properly train him," prison guard and local Huntsville union chief Lance Lowry told ABC-13. "It's imperative with the lack of staffing in these units that officers receive the highest level of training. When you under-train and over-work people, they make mistakes and don't know how to properly respond to incidents."

Lowry was reacting to story broken by Ted Oberg Investigates Thursday that featured a video from a whistleblower taken inside the Humble-based Lychner State Jail. The video shows a corrections supervisor firing a canister from a tear gas rifle into a crowd of inmates at short range.

That canister hit one of the inmates and exploded in a shower of sparks. He was hospitalized with burns and a shoulder injury, TDCJ officials said. They also said the supervisor who fired the tear gas gun is now on desk duty.

See ABC-13's original investigation here.

There was a potential fix, Lowry said.

A bill passed the House and Senate in the legislature this year that would have mandated annual firearm testing, training and mental health crisis awareness.

But, "It was vetoed," Lowry said.

Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed the bill to avoid micro-managing the prison system, according to a legislative summary.

Read House Bill 1855 and Abbott's veto here.

TDCJ officials said, though, there is significant training for guards.

"Correctional officers are required to attend 40 hours of training each year which includes the delivery of chemical agents," according to a statement from the TDCJ. "The agency met or exceeded the requirements of (the legislation) with the exception of consulting with Texas Commission on Law Enforcement in developing mental-health crisis training."

In addition, the TDCJ is starting crisis intervention and mental health training for guards starting Sept. 1, officials said.

Lowry pointed to the video to show more training is needed.

On the video, taken on May 19, one can see a group of inmates in a dorm seemingly squaring off for a fight along racial lines, with African-American inmates on one side of the jail dorm and Hispanic inmates on the other.

Apparently, the Hispanic inmates wouldn't get in their beds for lights out an hour earlier.

The supervisor on duty looks into the camera.

"I will warn them twice and then use a chemical agent," he says in the video.

He and other staffers walk right through the inmates. Less than two minutes later, the supervisor shoots the 37 mm tear gas gun into a crowd at short range.

"A properly trained officer would have never entered that disturbance," Lowry said. "The disturbance was contained inside the dorm. At any given time the members of that unit can be taken hostage."

Longtime prison rights advocate Ray Hill also saw the ABC-13 video.

"I was horrified," Hill said. "It's one of the most shocking things I've seen on local television in awhile."

Hill agrees with Lowry that the guard made the wrong decision and added that his actions could have killed an inmate.

"To walk into an indoor setting, raise a tear gas cannon to shoulder level and fire into a crowd is absolute madness," he said. "The film caught the guy burning. It's pretty sick stuff."

TDCJ officials have said that tear gas is appropriate to use in some instances, but concede it was not used correctly in the May incident. Officials also said they have retrained some staffers.
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