Full Series: KSAT Investigates takes you inside a Texas prison for a lockdown

For the first time since 2008, Texas prisons went on statewide lockdown

HUNTSVILLE, Texas – For the first time in over a decade, Texas prisons were under a statewide lockdown from Sept. 6 to Oct. 16.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials said the lockdown was prompted due to the amount of violence, drugs, and contraband inside prisons being at an all-time high.

As of Oct. 4, there have been 21 homicides at TDCJ prisons in 2023. In 2022 and 2021, there were seven and nine homicides, respectively.

According to TDCJ’s website, a lockdown at each facility “will limit the movement of inmates and their contact with those outside the prison. Inmates and staff will undergo intensified searches to intercept and confiscate contraband.” The lockdown includes comprehensive searches with K9 officers and specialized search teams.

KSAT Investigates was granted exclusive access inside a prison while this lockdown was happening to see firsthand the problems.

Wynne Unit visit

Our visit to the Wynne Unit in Huntsville highlighted all of the security protocols in place currently for visitors to the prison.

The group we were with went through several screenings to get inside the prison itself; metal detectors, K9 officers, pat-downs, and locked gates.

During our tour of the unit, we were shown the Wynne Unit mailroom, where employees are seeing an increased effort of drug smuggling and other contraband items through the mail system.

At the gym, the inmates from one cell block waited with their belongings to be thoroughly searched.

While that was happening, an intelligence team aided by K9 officers conducted a thorough search to find contraband hidden or left behind in cells of inmates.

Read the entirety of Part One of KSAT Investigates “The Texas Prison Lockdown” series here.

What prompted the statewide lockdown

Over the past five years, there’s been a significant increase in the amount of contraband found inside Texas prisons, like cellphones, alcohol, drugs, and weapons.

“All of our facilities go through some type of shake-down procedure each year, but to take a whole system down at once had not been done since 2008,” said Bobby Lumpkin, director of correctional institutions divisions for TDCJ.

Lumpkin said a lockdown of this magnitude is a major disruption for day-to-day life inside prisons.

“It is very concerning. We’ve also had some serious assaults, some assaults of staff. Also, inmate homicides,” Lumpkin said.

Homicide numbers

As of Oct. 4, there have been 21 homicides at TDCJ prisons for the year 2023.

In 2022 and 2021, there were seven and nine homicides, respectively.

Fatal overdoses

On top of the murders, there have been 17 fatal overdoses this year as of early October.

That is the same amount as all of 2022 and five more than in 2021.

Read the entirety of Part Two of KSAT Investigates “The Texas Prison Lockdown” series here.

Possible solutions

To combat the arising problems inside the TDCJ system, officials are trying out some significant changes, starting with the mailroom.

Before the lockdown began in September, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced its transition to a fully digital mail system.

After a successful pilot launch, TDCJ decided to roll things out system-wide.

All mail now comes to a designated facility in Farmers Branch, outside of Dallas.

The digital system is an effort to interrupt the stream of contraband being smuggled through the mail system.

TDCJ is also ramping up security with new millimeter wave scanners. Those will be getting an upgrade soon.

Why the rise in problems?

With all of the changes and efforts, one question remains: What’s driving the increase?

Chief of Staff Jason Clark points to a few reasons.

“Back during COVID, inmates did receive stimulus checks, so there was a significant amount of money, millions and millions of dollars that came into inmate’s hands,” Clark said.

Another big reason is staffing challenges.

Across the TDCJ system, there is a shortage of approximately 6,500 correctional officers.

Read the entirety of Part Three of KSAT Investigates “The Texas Prison Lockdown” series here.

Rehabilitation programs

Christopher Carter oversees the Rehabilitation Programs Division inside of TDCJ.

Carter said his team within the Rehabilitation Programs Division is always looking at new ways to enrich incarcerated peoples’ lives so they have a better chance of success when they’re released.

“We have a program called Go for the Goal,” Carter said. “We have individualized treatment plans for each individual that’s in prison. And with those plans, it enables my staff to develop treatment assignments for them in certain areas that they need to focus on in order to achieve their rehabilitation.”

The Go for the Goal program creates an avenue for TDCJ to approach someone who is just coming into the prison system and help them lay out a path for success.

“This covers anything you want to go to, any kind of education you want to pursue, need anything religious, overcomers, manhood, you name it. It’s endless of all the opportunities that they’ve given to us,” Raymond Ramirez, an inmate at the Wynne Unit, said.

Whether it’s a substance abuse treatment program, sex offender treatment, volunteer services, or secondary education, TDCJ is trying to cover every aspect of rehabilitation to create a safer environment inside and out.

The rehabilitation programs were impacted during the lockdown because inmates were not able to be out of their cells for long periods of time, aside from the extensive searches. However, the programs were not stopped altogether.

“During lockdown, we have what we call alternative assignments. Therefore, it’s not going to stop the programs, so to speak,” Carter explained. “Their programs, their treatment assignments, they’re just in a different way. They have phase-specific assignments. For example, if you have someone in an orientation phase and a treatment program, they receive orientation-related curriculum and assignments.”

Read the entirety of Part Four of KSAT Investigates “The Texas Prison Lockdown” series here.

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About the Authors:

Leigh Waldman is a news reporter at KSAT 12. She joined the station in 2021. Leigh comes to San Antonio from the Midwest after spending time at a station in Omaha, NE. After two winters there, she knew it was time to come home to Texas. When Leigh is not at work, she enjoys eating, playing with her dogs and spending time with family.