MIDWAY (AP) – Behind the razor wire-topped fences of Ferguson prison and other Texas penitentiaries are 5,205 inmates branded the baddest of the bad — dubbed so devious they are locked in one-man cells for 23 hours a day often for decades.
Lock down. Isolation. Administrative segregation.
Spread among 22 prisons, Texas has more inmates in so-called “ad-seg” than most other states in the nation.
They have been deemed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to be “confirmed” members of gangs, too organized, predatory and violent to mix with the 150,000 prisoners in general populations.
They serve their time in cages of about 9 feet by 7 feet with cement walls outfitted with solid steel doors or bars covered with mesh.
“We ain’t the most likable or most welcomed group in society,” concedes 38-year-old Anastacio Garcia, a robber from the Rio Grande Valley who has been in isolation here for 15 years. “We sit here day in and day out, basically rotting ourselves away.”
Another 4,000 or so inmates are serving temporary stints in ad-seg as punishment for breaking rules or being escape risks.
Their cells are identical to those on death row.
The American Civil Liberties Union and others contend ad-seg imprisonment is cruel and makes inmates meaner and more dysfunctional by the time they are freed.
Citing its ineffectiveness as well as cost concerns, Mississippi and Maine have scaled back its use. In California, thousands of inmates recently launched a hunger strike in protest.
A Texas lawmaker unsuccessfully sought this year to require the prison system to review the standards for putting an inmate in ad-seg – and determine whether they are more likely than others to end up back behind bars.
“We are talking about human beings in an isolated place for years at a time,” said Rep. Marisa Marquez, a Houston native representing El Paso. “What does that do to them psychologically, and how does that help their rehabilitation when they are supposed to get out and function in society and be productive members?”
In Texas, members of eight prison gangs, categorized as Security Threat Groups, automatically go straight into isolation regardless of the crime they committed.
Those include “confirmed” members of the Texas Syndicate, Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood and others. Their only way out: renounce gang affiliations, which they rarely do out of loyalty or fear of retribution.
“When I first walked down that run, I seen it was dark and said, `What the hell did I put myself into?’?” said inmate Mike Mendoza, serving life for a Baytown murder. “All I did was walk forward. My heart was beating fast. I said, `This is for real.’?”
Ad-seg cells are rarely seen by outsiders, but inmates have access to ministers, counselors and medical and mental health specialists.
Guards sometimes carry shields to protect themselves from being stabbed with homemade spears or pelted with excrement, urine or rotten food — rancid homemade cocktails used for attacks known as “chunking.”
“Do not have sympathy for these men,” said a retired TDCJ guard who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The former guard noted they are served three meals a day, have medical care and better lives than law-abiding people who end up living under bridges.
The worse, the better, says Aaron McCartney, whose father, a longshoreman, was murdered in Liberty in 2006 by gangsters ordered by their captain to steal a 14-year-old pick-up truck for spare parts.
“Cut their heads off. They don’t deserve to live,” McCartney said of his father’s killers, who are in ad-seg. “They can think about what they did. That is where they deserve to be.”
Zeke Young, head of Houston-based, Less than the Least Prison Ministry, which reaches out to inmates in isolation, is one of the few outsiders allowed into ad-seg.
“It is locked down. It is hot,” he said, guessing at 115 degrees this time of year, without a cross breeze.
His radio show, also on the Web, is aimed at them. He visits cells, carries a Bible, a stool, and repeats this mantra: The only way out is up.
“I talk to the ones who will talk to me, I do my best to listen,” he said. “It is horrible to see the consequences of gang membership. What a man does is give his life away, he stays locked away.”
When inmates are taken out of their cells and walked to showers or recreation (a one-man cage), they are handcuffed behind their backs, escorted by two guards and searched extensively.
Still, inmate David Puckett, 27, escaped in March from ad-seg at a Beaumont prison by cutting through the top of a recreation cage.
Puckett, who was in isolation for being an escape risk, scaled razor-wire fences and was later spotted at St. Lukes Hospital in Houston before being caught by deputy U.S. marshals in Nebraska.
Inmates contend the stringent lockup doesn’t prepare them for freedom.
“I live among the living dead,” said inmate Danny Corral, 32, who was convicted of murder, and sentenced at 16. “This cell is not very different from a mausoleum.”
For their part, Texas prison officials contend ad-seg keeps the most dangerous inmates under control.
If placed in the general population, they will be asked by their gangs to follow orders and even kill.
Jason Clark, a TDCJ spokesman, said gangs, for example, have threatened to harm guards’ families if they don’t let drugs or other contraband into the prison.
Members have also been known to assault and target staff that “infringe” on the group or are perceived as having issues of “disrespect,” Clark said.
Virgil Barfield, 55, who grew up in Houston’s Heights neighborhood, spent 25 years in ad-seg.
“What carried me through at first was anger, sit back there and be angry,” he said in an interview. He is now in general population after renouncing his gang.
“Sooner or later, you are going to have to deal with yourself,” said Barfield, who went to prison for burglary, but murdered another inmate in a gang hit. “You have to look at what you’ve done in life, where you are going.”
The ACLU contends ad-seg is arbitrary and ineffective.
“This type of isolation is pervasive around the country,” said Amy Fettig, ACLU’s senior counsel for the national prison project. “It is now being used at an unprecedented level.
“Unfortunately, when you place somebody in (ad-seg) you are not teaching them how to be a better person. You are simply driving them crazy.”
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