Continued violence at the federal corrections complex outside Beaumont has spurred the Bureau of Prisons to relocate most of the unit's 1,500 high-security inmates to other prisons.
The shift comes after a rash of violence in the past months, including two inmate slayings and the stabbing of two correctional officers. But a prison system official said recent events alone did not cause the bureau to act.
"Incidents at the USP over the last few years have required us to consider alternatives for managing that institution," said bureau spokeswoman Traci Billingsley in Washington D.C.
As high-security inmates are transferred to other institutions, medium-security inmates will take their places.
Officials hope the trade will break up a collection of violent inmates and decrease assaults there.
The shift now under way is designed to be temporary, with an eventual repopulation of high-security inmates. There is no timetable for returning high-security inmates.
The president of the local union for federal prison workers said he is hopeful the bureau's plan will increase the safety of correctional officers and remaining inmates.
"It should allow for them to readjust their situation there at the penitentiary, to make the changes they need to make it safer," said Isaac Ortiz.
Ortiz said understaffing and a lack of incentives for inmates to behave have contributed to the existing situation.
"There was a program change in 2005 that reduced overall staffing," Ortiz said. "And federal sentencing laws don't give them reason to be good. They are more violent. They are more brazen to confront each other and also the staff."
Exporting the high-security inmates will not change staffing levels or assignments, said Deborah Denham, spokeswoman for the bureau's south central region.
No correctional officers have been killed at the Beaumont complex. Ortiz said the stabbing of two officers in November represented the most serious injuries suffered by prison staff. Both guards survived, but neither has returned to work.
Gabriel N. Rhone, a high-security inmate, died in the same attack. Before his death, Rhone complained to his mother and sister by telephone of violence at the prison and said he feared he would be killed, family members said in interviews.
The location of the November attacks, in the high-security facility's Special Housing Unit, underscores the danger in the prison, Ortiz said.
"The Special Housing Unit is supposed to be one of the most secure areas in the prison," Ortiz said. "But because of the staff constraints and budget, it is very hard to maintain the type of security necessary."
James Makin, a Beaumont defense attorney who recently defended a man convicted of capital murder in the prison, echoed Ortiz' assessment regarding compromised security in the special housing unit.
"With the murders, the assaults, the violence, I think they realized they had a problem," Makin said. "This is a way they can ship the problem people to other prisons and start over again."
Bureau of Prison officials have been tight-lipped about the transfers, initially denying violence had anything to do with them.
Ultimately the bureau acknowledged that events at the prison in past years led to the change -- a move that has been required in the past at other high-security units.
First Homicide In 1998
When the Beaumont Federal Correctional Complex opened in 1996, it was the bureau's largest campus with an inmate population the size of Bevil Oaks, China and Kountze combined. It also was the state's first high-security penitentiary. The overall population since has grown from 4,100 to about 5,100.
In addition to the high-security facility, the federal prison complex south of Beaumont includes a medium-security unit, a low-security unit and a minimum-security unit or camp. Prisoners in other units will not be affected by the shift.
Prisoners are classified in different security levels according to their background.
Less than two years after its completion in 1997, the high-security unit saw its first homicide.
Just two months ago, the September 1998 case resulted in a life sentence for Ellis Joseph Mosher, a Maryland man originally convicted of kidnapping who stabbed Louisiana bank robber and fellow inmate Stanley Moseley.
Since then at least seven inmates have been killed at the prison complex, according to court records and The Enterprise archives.
Prisons nationwide have become more dangerous.
The number of federal prisoners with a history of violence has increased 23 percent in the last decade, according to the bureau. Prisoners convicted of violent offenses have increased by 17 percent in the same period.
"It has been no secret that the Beaumont USP has increasingly become more violent," said Britt Featherston, an assistant United States attorney in Beaumont. "Eventually the prison becomes full or almost full of people doing extremely long prison sentences. You have them all together, and those guys don't stop being violent. Their little world becomes a question of 'How do I get over on the next guy?'"
The prison's violence saps federal prosecution resources that Featherston would like to spend on criminals not already incarcerated.
"Our hope is that there will be fewer Moshers, less assaultive crime. It is a severe drain on our resources," he said.
The latest killing at the Beaumont corrections complex to result in an indictment highlights how dangerous prisons can be.
On May 7, 2005, the day after Keith Barnes was transferred to Beaumont from Florida, he was stabbed to death.
According to court filings and reports in the Washington Post, Barnes was killed in retaliation for testifying against co-defendants in a Washington, D.C., murder trial.
The U.S. Attorney's Office has filed a notice to seek the death penalty against the three men indicted in Barnes' death.
"That's three capital murder trials, stacked end to end. That alone could take us to until fall or winter of 2010," Featherston said.
"Hopefully there will be less of these cases now."
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.