'Change needed': Prison experts discuss aftermath of Gonzalo Lopez manhunt

Posted at 8:43 AM, Jun 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-09 09:43:53-04

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Senator John Whitmire marveled at the number of prisoners who are transported in and out of facilities each day – approximately 2,000.

“The priority ought to be the reduction of violent offenders [in transport]," Whitmire said.

"[We] have to go to video medicine, and we have to have healthcare providers come to the [prison] unit,

"And, only in life-threatening situations would you transport a violent offender to a Galveston hospital.”

Dr. Jay Coons is a professor of criminology at Sam Houston State University, dedicating nearly 40 years working in Houston law enforcement, including county jail management.

Coons said that the transportation of prison inmates for medical treatments, in particular, could possibly have to do with a lack of medical resources at less equipped units.

Ideally, Coons posed that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice should be keeping inmates with serious medical conditions exclusively at units able to handle that level of healthcare.

“What you don’t do is put an inmate with a serious medical condition that will require chronic care, or who could become critical at any point, and house them out in east nowhere Texas where you’ll have to transport them to a hospital or other unit," Coons said.

The professor said he believes that some inmates may also have a tendency to fabricate conditions that would require them to be transported, just to get some time outside the prison walls.

“There’s the day trip, there’s the ‘I’m going to do what I can to get back at the state' trip, that motivation," he said.

"And I would say, on much rarer occasions, that an inmate is using this to get into the position that they are on the outside of a secure facility, and it is easier to escape.”

Coons said what happened with escaped killer Gonzalo Lopez - who broke free from a prison transport bus on May 12 in Centerville - may have been an unlikely occurrence caused by individual failures and a combination of factors.

Coons said that improving in-unit medical care to reduce prisoner transportation would be costly, which taxpayers may be hesitant to support.

Most of all, Coons would like to see change on a larger societal scale concerning incarceration, keeping prisoner counts lower through preventative care, de-stigmatization of addiction and poverty, and early intervention for young offenders.

But he doubts that will happen any time soon.

Too quickly, he said he feels the people of Texas will forget about the case of Gonzalo Lopez and TDCJ, which might have inspired them to demand action from the powers that be.

“Looking at those larger systemic issues, those studies take a lot of time, and that is only going to come [about]... when we’re over that peak of attention, and the public isn’t really all that interested anymore, and their attention span has dropped to a lower level,” Coons said.