CENTERVILLE, Texas — Texas Senator John Whitmire said he is concerned about prison staffing shortages.
The chair of the senate's criminal justice committee, Whitmire met with TDCJ Executive Director Brian Collier to discuss the matter.
During said talk, he received answers to the questions many have been wondering about the escape of Gonzalo Lopez – like what actually happened on that bus?
Whitmire said he’s been concerned about the frequency of inmate transports between prisons for years now, especially considering staffing shortages.
TDCJ has since confirmed that it transports approximately 2,000 prisoners a day, with some prisons operating at less than 65 percent staff capacity.
The senator emphasized that convicted murderer Gonzalo Lopez was able to enter the TDCJ transport bus with a knife and a key, both of which aided in his escape that day.
“I’m told that the other inmates knew what was coming down, and started singing and jumping around so the officer in the back [of the bus] was distracted," Whitmire said.
"The driver was watching the road, and in the meantime Lopez is releasing his cuffs and leggings, breaking out of the little cage he’s in.”
Whitmire re-affirmed that TDCJ officers worked for weeks alongside other agencies to find Lopez in Leon County.
However, Whitmire noted the public’s concerns about the execution of the search on the ground; especially how Lopez was later able to enter a ranch house, killing five people - including small children.
“I know yesterday it surfaced they had DNA at the adjoining cabin up the road, and I challenged the director this morning," Whitmire said.
"[Collier] said, ‘Senator, we didn’t get the report back till the day of the homicides to link the DNA back to Lopez.’”
Whitmire said he's spoken with TDCJ staff over the past several years concerning issues in their prisons, especially at ones that fail to retain adequate staffing levels.
Whitmire said he believes low morale among staff has been a factor.
The senator then recalled a conversation he had with an assistant warden a few years ago.
“He said, 'my corrections officers can make more money selling cigarettes to inmates than what the state will pay them,'" Whitmire said.
"'They’re not prosecuted when we catch them because the local grand jury is made up of employees' families.'"
Ultimately, Whitmire hopes Texas will further fund its prison industry.
He suggested that prison staff may even benefit from forming a union.
“We’ve given out significant pay raises, but they’re still underpaid and overworked, and we have a huge problem with contraband in prison," Whitmire said.
"Cell phones – Lopez probably had a cellphone, we’re told.”
Whitmire would also like to see inmates only be transported for life-threatening health emergencies, stating other medical needs can be met by in-house medical staff and virtual visits.
The senator expects that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick will ask him to hold a hearing about TDCJ soon.