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The severe beating of a Texas inmate underscores staffing and training crisis

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Thirteen guards from a North Texas prison were fired or resigned after a brutal beating in September left an inmate in a coma, likely for the rest of his life. We're going to tell you about that beating in this story, so be advised. Some inmates and former staffers say an acute shortage of guards is leading to more violence in some Texas prisons, and they warn it may only get worse. From Texas Public Radio, Paul Flahive has this report.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: Tim Nixon knew something bad was about to happen. It was 9:15 at night, and he had just been rousted from his cell by three guards whose names he didn't know and whose name tags, he says, were obscured by full tactical riot gear. Nixon says they placed him in a holding cell about 50 feet down the run, directly across from another cell, cell No. 1. Then the guards joined a half-dozen others lined up outside cell 1.

TIM NIXON: Call it intuition. Call it, you know, whatever you want to call it. But you can tell that somebody's fixing to get their a** whooped.

FLAHIVE: The Alternative Living Unit, or ALU, where Nixon currently lives at Coffield Prison Unit, holds 12 men in solitary confinement who have a high risk of escape or who have assaulted guards in the past, people like the occupant of cell 1, Kiheem Grant.

NIXON: I'm literally 20 feet away in this holding cell, and I can see Grant in his cell.

FLAHIVE: What Nixon had missed was that Grant had assaulted a prison guard. According to other inmates, a long-simmering feud between a new sergeant and Grant had boiled over, and prisoners say Grant shot the guard in the neck with a makeshift speargun. gun. The projectile pierced Sergeant Gabriel Kweh's neck, so an hour later, guards handcuffed Grant behind his back through his cell door with two pairs of cuffs, a protective box over that and a chain with a padlock. And then Nixon says he saw the most brutal beating he's seen in his 33 years in Texas prisons.

NIXON: They open the door and run in and proceed to beat the crap out of this guy.

FLAHIVE: Then he says a guard removed his helmet and raised it high, nearly to the ceiling.

NIXON: Almost 9 feet up, and bringing it down on offender Grant's head multiple times. The man is completely unresponsive at this point.

FLAHIVE: Grant is currently in a coma at a prison hospital that his family says he likely won't wake from. Seven guards were terminated, six resigned, and a criminal investigation continues. Inmate Christian McMillan says the violence has only gotten worse.

CHRISTIAN MCMILLAN: What about the culture that promotes this type of incident, this type of action towards inmates?

FLAHIVE: McMillan says three of the guards who have now been fired were known for joking about beating inmates.

MCMILLAN: In conversation, like it's cool, like, you know, this is what we do, you know? This is the thing. We just conversate and laugh about it.

FLAHIVE: The state prison system continues to block TPR's access to disciplinary records of the guards involved. Inmates, including McMillan, say the state's extreme understaffing set the stage for this and other violent incidents. Coffield Prison is short of about 430 guards, meaning more than 60% of guard positions are unfilled.

LANCE LOWRY: That is insane.

FLAHIVE: Lance Lowry is a past president for the union representing Texas prison guards.

LOWRY: My mind can't even understand why it'd get to that level. That is incredibly dangerous, not only for the inmates, the officers, but the community.

FLAHIVE: For inmates, Lowry says, the guard shortage means less access to showers and recreation time and food showing up hours late. For guards, it means more forced overtime and less time with family.

LOWRY: I mean, you mix that combination. It's an explosive formula. You're going to see more use of force.

FLAHIVE: A department spokeswoman says what happened to Grant was not related to staffing or training. She says the system has increased training as well as pay. Since April 2022, they've reduced the number of vacancies by 1,100. But statewide they haven't filled nearly 30% of positions. South Houston State Representative Gene Wu says the Texas Senate failed to pass money approved by his chamber last session that would have helped close that gap further by providing more money for pay and air conditioning in Texas's notoriously overheated prisons.

GENE WU: The number of people who are willing to work in a brutal environment where there is just unbelievable heat every single day, where you're understaffed, overworked and underpaid - who wants to do that?

FLAHIVE: But Wu says it's unlikely the state will take action, and he hopes the federal government intervenes.

For NPR News, I'm Paul Flahive in Tennessee Colony, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.