Revisiting the killings of prisoners by Texas prison officials
On April 11, 2014 I wrote and subsequently sent out for publication an article titled “Texas Prison Officials and Medical Staff Kill Prisoners and More To Silence Witnesses.”1 That article dealt with retaliations by Texas Department Of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) officials against a prisoner, Jaicourrie “Romero” Finley, for his role in exposing and challenging the involvement of officials in the death of another prisoner, Joseph Comeaux.
In that article I reported how Comeaux was believed to have died on November 13, 2013 from inability to breathe and the failure of prison medical staff and guards to provide him medical aid. Further information indicates that Comeaux was at the very least brutally beaten by officials after he was taken out of his cell in medical distress to locations where other prisoners could not witness his treatment, and possibly violently murdered by officials.
Reassessing Joseph Comeaux’s death
My account of Comeaux’s dying in the Clements Unit Medical Department reported what amounts to narratives spread by officials, of which I should have been suspicious. In fact only days after he died, a group of guards conspicuously came to my neighboring prisoner’s cell and asked if he wanted to go to dental, which he declined. Yet they stood in front of his cell for several minutes talking about Comeaux’s death in tones I could clearly hear. These guards were Tyrail Crosby, David Dwight, Thomas Ibisen and one other.
I should have suspected a staged performance. I’ve seen officials do it many times, staging conversations around prisoners to generate rumors or spread amongst prisoners accounts of controversial events that they want us to believe. In Comeaux’s case they certainly had an interest to control or determine what was circulated, especially if he’d been violently killed, and because his death was likely to raise questions and demands for answers from people outside the TDCJ. And who better to target with misinformation or selective information but me, since I’m known to actively publicize prison abuses, and had just been involved in exposing the witnessed killing of another TDCJ prisoner, Christopher Woolverton.2
The group of guards standing by my cell described how Comeaux was taken to the medical examination room where he persisted that he could not breathe; that he remarked he was dying and going to defecate on himself, both of which they said he did. At this point Crosby remarked without elaborating that “what happened” to Comeaux and his dying spooked him. To which Dwight replied that Crosby should get used to seeing prisoners die at the unit, because it was a routine occurrence. They went on to talk about how “at least no force was used, everything was done by the book.” I’ve since found this to have been a lie, which casts into doubt the entire account that Comeaux simply died complaining of breathing complications.
In a recent letter from Comeaux’s widow (who’s given me permission to write about her late husband’s mistreatments) she described the condition his body was in when delivered by the TDCJ:
“When [his] body came and we viewed his body, I had to practically stare for ten minutes before realizing that it was indeed him. He had bruises on his face and a black eye, and [his] nose appeared to have been dislocated or broken.”
Obviously Comeaux was violently attacked while still alive in order to cause the numerous contusions, making it highly likely that he died violently and not merely by medical neglect, which would explain Jaicourrie Finley’s being confronted [with hostility] by TDCJ “investigators” demanding to know why he was saying officials killed Comeaux, looking to discover what he knew.3
The incident, and the widow’s account of the condition of Comeaux’s body, is eerily reminiscent of another prisoner’s death at this same unit, whose body showed evidence of a brutal beating and likely murder, which didn’t match the official story of how he’d supposedly died.
The murder of Theodore Scherber
In the early morning hours of Sunday, October 21, 2006, the mother of Theodore Scherber was called at her job by a TDCJ chaplain and was told that her son, a prisoner at the Clements Unit prison, was found dead and unable to be revived on Saturday, October 20, 2006. He quickly offered her a state burial. Instead she persisted to know how her son died, which the chaplain claimed not to know, but upon her insistence said he’d find out and call her back. A few hours later he called her again to report it was allegedly a suicide.
Later that morning she called the prison. After a bit of hassle she was put through to a supervisor whom she described as “rude and hateful,” and who told her that her son was witnessed inflicting superficial scratches on his stomach and arm in an apparent suicide attempt. Consequently he was moved into a suicide precaution cell on a 15-minute watch, where he’d supposedly hung himself with a heavy tear-proof suicide precaution blanket prisoners are given in those cells. She was told no further information was available until that Monday.
On Monday, October 22, 2006, an assistant warden and the warden repeated the suicide story, which the mother interrogated. How, she asked, could her son, while in a suicide precaution unit and cell, and under suicide monitoring, shred a suicide precaution blanket and hang himself to death and not be revivable, all in the span of 15 minutes? None of this added up and no sensible explanations could be given.
Then her son’s body disappeared. With her persistence it was later found halfway across the state at a Fort Worth, Texas Coroner’s office with an autopsy completed. In her own words, the mother wrote:
“I feel they stalled us the whole weekend while they smuggled his body off for a rushed autopsy so we could not get a private one. (COVER UP!). When we brought the suit to the funeral home I seen him for the first time in two years. I was in shock. He looked like an old man. He was starved down to 138 pounds. He was a big boy—six feet tall. First thing I seen was the top of his head was bashed in. Then I seen bruising resembling strap marks across both hands, bruising on side of head, ears, etc. After the memorial service my fiancÚ Bob and my son’s father went in the back room with mortician and they removed his frail body from the coffin and undressed him. They took over 25 photos and a video. His body was beaten, stabbed. There are two sets of strangulation marks on his neck. One up high resembling a rope or cord and down further; a wider one that looks like the blanket story. The bend of his arm was duct-taped and shrink-wrapped. The mortician removed the bandage, which he put there because he was afraid the embalming fluid would leak out. There was a big, round, black hole like a stab wound about the size of a quarter. Very, very deep wound.”4
Numerous prisoners who’ve been housed at Clements Unit for several years have told me it is well known that officials have murdered numerous prisoners here, and continue to do so. Most of these prisoners don’t want to be identified for fear of retaliation or being targeted themselves. One, however, who has agreed to be a witness and identified (although I think it wise not to name him here) told me about a past lieutenant named Roberts, who revealed to him and others how Clements Unit officials were selectively targeting prisoners for killings, especially troublesome and mentally ill ones. Roberts was trying to enlist prisoners to get involved to help expose the killings.
Roberts told them how the officials would check prisoners’ backgrounds and monitor their correspondence to ensure they had no ongoing contacts with loved ones on the outside. Once certain there would be nobody to enquire about the prisoner’s death, he was a candidate for a staged suicide or beating to death. And as in the cases of Comeaux and Scherber, they have crooked coroners who falsely certify unremarkable causes of death and overlook irregularities in the conditions of the corpses. Because of his efforts Roberts was targeted by Clements Unit officials as a “dirty guard;” and claimed he was bringing contraband items in to prisoners, etc. He ended in giving up his lieutenant rank, returning to the lowly rank of a regular prison guard, and transferred to a position with TDCJ’s transportation department from which he recently retired.
As evidenced by the deaths of Comeaux and Scherber, everyone up to the warden at the prison cooperates in the cover-ups of even obvious prisoner murders, where the corpses show clear evidence of violent treatment preceding death.
Clements Unit is a non-mental health prison, yet it houses over 1800 documented mentally ill prisoners. Many are held in long term segregation in violation of past federal court rulings against TDCJ, requiring that such prisoners be held at mental health facilities where they can receive appropriate care.5 Not coincidentally this prison boasts the state’s highest rates of use of force and chemical agents on prisoners, in numbers that experts call “overwhelming,” and in situations where, “there’s no particular indication that there’s an immediate danger of any kind.”
Clements Unit is a sort of domestic black site prison where abuses and murders of prisoners have been normalized, where select cases that officials want “handled” can be sent. This is likely what happened to Comeaux, who was greatly disliked by TDCJ officials at all levels. At this unit they persistently prevented his ability to communicate with his loved ones. His widow recounts how even lawyers warned that his life was in danger. He was denied life sustaining medical care.
It’s no coincidence that I’ve been sent to this prison and have endured many of the same efforts to isolate me and denied medical care as Comeaux endured. In fact, as I previously wrote, I was threatened with transfer into just such conditions if I didn’t stop publicizing abusive prison conditions as I continue to do.6 I anticipate that I may meet a similar end, as it seems Comeaux did but I am not deterred. Officials at this Clements Unit have tried repeatedly to provoke me into situations where uses of force by them might be speciously justified, while trying to falsely portray me as some violent fanatic who wants only to hurt prison staff. What they fear is exposure, which is why they try to disguise their abuses. On top of extreme routine abuses, prisoners at this unit are being outrightly murdered, and in most cases, no one outside the walls of this death camp even suspects.7
We need the broadest exposure and public challenge, as they are victimizing the most vulnerable of people here—the mentally ill—and because the prisoners lack outside help.
Dare to Struggle - Dare to Win!
All Power to the People!
TDCI # 01859887
Clements Unit 9601 Spur 591
2 See, Karl Kersplebedeb, “Asthmatic Prisoner Doused With Pepper Spray, Refused Medical Care, Dies: Just Another Day In The Texas Prison System,” Socialist Viewpoint, Jan/Feb. 2014 p. 57; also in San Francisco Bay View, Dec. 2013, p.6.
3 As the federal courts have found, TDCJ investigations of abuses of force on prisoners serve to condone not punish or resolve such abuses.
“The extent to which force is used in TDCJ, combined with the inability or failure of the prison system to control use of force incidents, reflects what can only be described as an affirmative management strategy to permit the use of excessive force for both punishment and deterrence. It is clear that while [TDCJ investigative agencies] goes through the motions of filing paperwork on cases, it seldom finds officer misconduct. The result is to send a clear message to line staff that excessive force will be tolerated.” Ruiz v Johnson, 37 F. Supp. 855, 939-990 (S.O. Tex. 1999).
4 A full statement of the incident was written by the murdered prisoner’s aggrieved mother and can be read under “Son Murdered in Clements Unit by Staff Texas Prison,” at http://www.prisontalk.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-266252.html
5 See Ruiz v. Estelle, 503 F. Supp. 1265, (S.D. Tex. 1980).
6 Brandi Grisson, “A Tie To Mental Illness in the Violence Behind Bars,” New York Times, Sept. 21, 2013; “Force Against Texas Inmates On The Rise,” The Texas Tribune, April 3, 2014, http://www.texastribune.org/2014/04/03/force-against-texas-inmates-rise/
7 Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “Political Struggle In The Teeth Of Prison Reaction From Virginia To Oregon,” Socialism And Democracy, 2013 Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 78-94. The entire article is downloadable for free from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/08854300.2012.760266