150 guards staff empty Texas prison waiting for immigrants

The Briscoe Unit in Dilley, Texas, was emptied of state prisoners last month to instead detain immigrants. Credit: Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

By Jolie McCullough | The Texas Tribune

With the Texas prison system dangerously understaffed, nearly 150 guards are now working in an empty prison that Gov. Greg Abbott plans to convert into a state-run jail for immigrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.

More than 1,000 prisoners at the South Texas Briscoe Unit were transferred to other state lockups weeks ago, but it’s still unclear when and how the emptied prison will be fashioned into a Texas-operated jail for migrants facing — but not convicted of — state criminal charges.

State agencies that enforce jail standards and regulate law enforcement training have scrambled to determine what changes are needed at the unit to house a non-prison population. And 147 Briscoe officers are training to be certified as jailers while the prison remains in “maintenance mode” awaiting further instruction, according to a spokesperson for Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Meanwhile, the Texas prison system remains desperately short of guards, including one notoriously violent maximum-security prison that has less than half as many as it should, according to an agency report.

“They’re doing this on the fly. I don’t think anyone has thought through any of this,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s public affairs school and expert on prison and jail conditions.

Briscoe’s transition from a prison to a jail for immigrants began in mid-June as part of Abbott’s heightened push to quell an increase in apprehensions of migrants at the Texas-Mexico border. After the Republican governor declared the rise in illegal immigration a disaster in May, he directed the shift of $250 million from the prison agency’s budget to instead go toward building a border wall.

In June, Abbott said at a border security event that those who cross the Texas-Mexico border illegally — a federal crime — would be subject not only to federal apprehension but to arrest and confinement for state crimes, like trespassing and human trafficking. And he directed the state regulatory commissions for jail standards and law enforcement to “establish alternative detention facilities to ensure enough jail capacity for illegal immigrants who are arrested for criminal activities such as trespassing,” according to a press release from the governor’s office.

“While securing the border is the federal government’s responsibility, Texas will not sit idly by as this crisis grows,” Abbott said in the release.

Days later, it was reported that TDCJ had been told to offer up the medium-security Briscoe Unit in Dilley, a small town between San Antonio and Laredo, and its staff. But logistical details on the transition are murky.

A spokesperson for the governor said Tuesday that the prison-turned-jail will only detain adult males charged with a state crime, without specifying the type of crimes. But the governor’s office said TDCJ is still “in the process of determining any changes or training needed to operate and house individuals at the Briscoe Unit.” The Texas Commission on Jail Standards’ executive director said Friday the agency was in the same process.

In Texas, jails primarily hold criminal defendants accused, but not convicted, of state crimes while their cases are resolved in local court and pursued by county prosecutors. State prisons incarcerate those who have been convicted of state felonies. It’s unclear which courts would hear the criminal cases of immigrants detained at Briscoe, or who would prosecute the cases.

And Texas has minimum jail standards that do not always align with how the state prisons are run. For example, Texas county jails are required to be cooled at or below 85 degrees, while most Texas prisons — including Briscoe — notoriously lack air conditioning in housing areas. Deitch said that condition, along with others like spacing, attorney access and health care could be big hurdles in operating the state prison as a jail for immigrants.

“If they’re converting a prison to a jail, then it is required that the facility be in compliance with the Commission on Jail Standards minimum standards,” Deitch said. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, this is a prison so it can now be a jail.’”

While state officials work to figure out the standards that must be in place, the Briscoe prison officers are monitoring empty dorms and cells while their colleagues suffer from dangerous understaffing at other units throughout the state.

In May, TDCJ was short more than 5,300 officers, with about 78% of positions filled. At the Telford Unit in northeast Texas, both employees and prisoners reported dangerous conditions in 2018 as assaults on prisoners and officers rose while staffing ranks dwindled. At that point, Telford was 65% staffed. The prison now only has 45% of its officer positions filled.

“Our staff are working 16 hour days … some are just going home to sleep and come back,” said Jeff Ormsby, executive director of Texas prisons’ American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees branch. “They’re putting their life on the line.”