Shades of Gray

In Texas Prisons, It's Hard to Tell Who Your Enemies Are

Texas correctional officers in front of the Governor's Mansion for the 2000 vigil in honor of Daniel Nagle
Texas correctional officers in front of the Governor's Mansion for the 2000 vigil in honor of Daniel Nagle (Photo By Kenny Braun)

Daniel Nagle didn't die alone, because in a state prison nobody is ever alone. But the only witnesses to his murder, the first murder of a Texas prison guard by an inmate since 1985, were inmates. If you ask how it happened, that is, how a guard found himself fighting for his life -- unarmed, without a radio, and without backup -- in an area accessible to more than one hundred inmates, you will be introduced to a longstanding battle between the prison guard union and the prison administration over understaffing, poor pay, and poor training, of which Nagle's death is only the most recent flashpoint. Ask instead why it happened -- that is, why Nagle, why now, why murder -- and the silence from both the union and the administration is deafening. Three months passed without an indictment or an official report on the incident, while both sides maintained an official silence about the specifics of the crime. Offered anonymity and a chance to talk away from their co-workers, however, individual guards offer an indictment of the system itself.

It's a story of corruption you wouldn't believe. But maybe you should.

On the afternoon of his murder, Dec. 17 of last year, Nagle was assigned to a common area in one of five residential buildings at the McConnell Unit, in the South Texas town of Beeville, where he had worked for three years. The buildings are divided into "pods," each pod consisting of three cell wings arranged in a "T" with a common area at their junction. From his desk, Nagle could see into the three wings, each of which was patrolled by two guards. A building sergeant, a utility guard, and a desk guard (in this case Nagle), rounded out the pod's full complement of officers. That made nine guards, none of them armed (in accordance with state law), for 147 prisoners. Most of McConnell's buildings are medium security, meaning that prisoners are not confined to their cells during the day, but move around the building and the recreation yard as they please.

Singly and in small groups, inmates walked past Nagle's desk en route to the rec yard. From his position, Nagle also kept an eye on inmates in the barber shop, the craft shop, and the TV lounge, all of which opened onto the common area. Periodically Nagle got up -- at least once an hour, as required by federal case law -- and changed the channel for the inmates watching TV. Trustees (minimum custody inmates assigned to special responsibilities) in prison whites swept and mopped and hung around his desk, waiting to hand in their brooms and be the first in line for chow, served at 4pm. Prison officials have insisted that the building was not understaffed at the time of the murder, but Nagle's colleagues point out that he should have had a second desk guard there to assist him. The warden suspended that practice at least a year ago, according to guards, because the unit was so shorthanded. System-wide, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reports an official shortage of 1,729 guards out of a total force of 25,093, while other reports put the shortage as high as 2,500.

The shortage was one of the issues that prompted Nagle -- the president of the AFSCME union local that represents McConnell guards, as well as 14 other South Texas units -- to come to Austin in early December. Low pay, high turnover, and poor training were turning Texas prisons into powderkegs, the union argued. Inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-guard assaults were up across the state. Union members rallied at the Governor's Mansion, where they called for a special legislative session to raise the starting salary for guards, currently about $19,000 per year, or 46th in the nation. Nagle reportedly told supporters at the rally that "someone would have to be killed" before TDCJ got the message. Two weeks later, he was murdered.

At 3:30 on the day of his death, the building sergeant, Nagle's supervisor, was called to the chow hall to prepare for dinner. The utility guard was also absent, called out on an errand. That left Nagle alone. Sometime between 3:30 and 3:45pm, an inmate attacked Nagle with a sharpened metal rod, about six or eight inches long, with a cloth wrapped around the shaft for a handle. With other inmates watching from the TV lounge, Nagle was stabbed repeatedly in the throat and head. By the time he was discovered by another officer, he was dead.

New Boots

At the union hall in Beeville in late January, 10 or 12 guards, some still in their blue and gray uniforms, picked at Styrofoam bowls of gumbo while Nagle's replacement read haltingly from a laminated card headed, "How to Chair a Meeting." By all accounts, Nagle was one of the best presidents this local ever had. "Nagle was the union," a guard's wife lamented during a break in the meeting. "He was the only one doing anything." Nagle knew the agency employee manual chapter and verse, and he was a stickler for policy. He was the guy you wanted on your side when the warden was coming down on you, when you had a bullshit disciplinary filed on you by your supervisor, when you needed to file a grievance. ("He may have been small, but he was one mean little bastard," one McConnell guard later told me.) Even in death, he has officers rallying around him, using his case to call attention to their situation. A traveling candlelight vigil in his honor has been moving from unit to unit across the state since early January.

After the meeting, six guards crammed into the bare room that used to be Nagle's office. Speaking in turn, cautiously at first, and then interrupting one another, they began venting about life at TDCJ. The first thing you need to know about talking to prison guards is: Don't call them guards. They hate it. Call them correctional officers. "A guard is someone who sits around on his ass all day," one of them told me. "We never get to sit down." When they tell stories about work, they refer to one another as "bosses." As in "he's a real dirty boss." A prison unit is called a "farm," a holdover from an earlier generation, when every unit was a working cotton, bean, or corn farm. Many of them still are. Don't try to call C.O.'s in the evening, because many of them work two jobs. And don't believe everything they tell you, because theirs is a profession that breeds paranoia.

None of the officers present wanted his or her name used, for fear of retaliation by supervisors. These were the "seasoned veterans" of their units, though none had more than five years experience with the agency. Several of them didn't appear seasoned by anything. One boss with four years experience gave his age as 22. Their youthful faces illustrated one of the union's most compelling statistics: 44% of new hires leave before reaching 20 months with the agency. Just 10 years ago, annual turnover was only 5%. The administration blames a hot economy. But the union blames the pay scale and the job conditions. A new guard in Texas starts out at only $18,924 a year. (That's 46th in the nation; the national average pay for a C.O. is $34,000.) If he gets his two scheduled promotions, he maxes out as a "Correctional Officer Three" after 20 months, at just $26,724. No matter how many more years he works -- and many have retired as C.O.-3's with 20 years of experience -- unless he earns rank (sergeant, captain, major, or lieutenant), he will never make more than that base salary.

It's not unusual for "new boots" to leave work the first day and never come back. "They aren't prepared for what they see when they get in here," one boss said. But a case could be made that they aren't prepared for anything. Recruits receive just four weeks of training, or 160 hours, which ranks 33rd in the nation. Michigan officers, by comparison, receive 640 hours of pre-service training. In theory, Texas C.O.'s also get two weeks of on-the-job training. But many units are so shorthanded, they immediately stick new recruits in the chow hall, or on some other low-responsibility task, rather than having them shadow working officers.

That's according to Charles Godwin, TDCJ's training director. Former training director, that should read. Godwin was transferred from his position two months after he all but blamed the TDCJ administration for Nagle's death, publicly denouncing the agency's failure to commit adequate resources to training and retention of experienced officers, a condition he had fought to remedy for years. In a highly publicized letter to Gov. George W. Bush, Godwin called for the resignation of the executive director and the board, noting that in the midst of a staffing crisis, training hours have been cut (by 80 hours in 1997) and academic standards lowered. At the same time, Godwin complained, the budget for training has been reduced 21% while the number of trainees has jumped 41%. Godwin's allegations could not have come at a worse time for the agency, which has suffered a string of embarrassing headlines -- including an escape from death row (in which short staffing was cited in the official report), Nagle's murder, an unrelated riot at the same unit the following week, and the sudden resignation of the chairman of the TDCJ board -- that suggest the agency is losing control of the system. (Most recently, on March 17, the agency announced a rare system-wide lockdown to search for weapons and contraband, apparently in an effort to forestall an imminent gang war.)

Godwin's name has become a four-letter word at agency headquarters in Huntsville and Austin. "Charles Godwin has his First Amendment right to be as idiotic as he wants to be," said agency spokesman Glen Castlebury, who flatly refused to allow Godwin, the soon-to-be ousted training director, to give me a guided tour of the agency's main training facility, the Edmundo Mireles Academy, which is also located in Beeville. Godwin did invite me to his office at the academy, which sits on the grounds of an old naval air station, between two medium security transfer units, Garza East and Garza West.

Texas correctional officers protest working conditions, low pay, and lack of training for new recruits at the Capitol.
Texas correctional officers protest working conditions, low pay, and lack of training for new recruits at the Capitol. (Photo By Kenny Braun)

The academy is billed as the nation's largest facility of its kind by virtue of the huge class sizes trained there, but its facilities (which I toured by means of a video prepared by Godwin for the TDCJ board two years ago) suggest what new officers can expect from the agency. The cramped dorms have no working restrooms. New recruits are greeted by a row of Port-a-Johns, which the agency has rented for years. The video shows other training facilities across the state in a depressing state of disrepair: modular buildings damaged by wind and weather, rain-soaked and mildewed carpets, dormitories more cramped than inmate facilities. Training, according to Godwin, has gotten lost in the shuffle, even as the rest of the agency's budget has exploded.

Ordered by the courts to reduce overcrowding and to take the pressure off county jails forced to house state prisoners, TDCJ went on a building spree beginning in the late Eighties. Contractors (and towns like Beeville, which vied with one another to host the next new unit) lined up to get a piece of the largest public investment program in the state's history. The number of facilities jumped from just 16 units in 1972 to 112 in 1998, with more on the drawing board.

The new units were rapidly filled. Driven by tougher sentencing laws, reduced use of parole, and skyrocketing drug arrests, the number of inmates has grown from roughly 40,000 statewide in 1988 to over 150,000 today. The budget for training personnel has not kept pace.

"They made great strides under Ruiz in the 1980s," Godwin recalls, "but once the court stopped breathing down their necks, they had other priorities." (The Ruiz v. Estelle case -- named after the prisoner who filed suit against TDCJ in the early Seventies -- is the still active court case that resulted in the federal government seizing authority over Texas prisons in 1980, and was the impetus for every major reform in the Eighties: from the size of cells, to inmate-to-guard ratios, access to recreation, and, crucially, the end of the practice of using building tenders -- older, usually white inmates who acted as snitches and enforcers to keep order on behalf of the wardens.) In the last 10 years, class sizes for officer recruits became cumbersome and then ridiculously large. Single instructors teach up to 100 recruits at a time, making hands-on training prohibitive. Dangerously little time is spent on self-defense and other basic safety tactics, Godwin said.

Yet even with the state's training academies running at full bore, the agency cannot keep up with the rate of attrition. According to an internal security report leaked to Carlos Guerra of the San Antonio Express-News, the agency found that in 10 prisons surveyed, up to 27% of critical security positions were left unfilled. Mario Muñiz, a C.O. at Garza West, estimates that of the 71 guards needed to run his unit, about 50 are present on any given shift. "We are each asked to do the work of two people," he said. (Because of the poor pay, many do the work of three. A major at Muñiz's unit, for instance, moonlights at Wal-Mart.) The result is that policy cannot be followed, and Ruiz stipulations are ignored on a daily basis, according to officers.

Godwin suggested that the shortage may be by design. "The agency has become dependent on expending money appropriated for officer salaries in other areas," he claimed. The administration (which concedes that a pay raise is needed) counters that it is doing the best it can under difficult circumstances. It would be hard to do worse. There is still no recruiter in Beeville, Godwin pointed out. Employees are encouraged to refer friends and relatives. The reward for a successful referral is a certificate with a gold star. Many officers already work with a brother, sister, or spouse. It's not unusual for three generations of families to work at a unit. Daniel Nagle's wife, Crystal, worked at McConnell with her husband until she quit to have a baby, now five months old. The family has three children in all. Inmate family advocates object to the practice of hiring spouses to work at the same unit. Things are tense enough on the units, they say, without a husband having to defend his wife against taunts, or worse, from inmates, and the potential for relationships to become dangerously personal is too great. Sexual relationships between female (and occasionally, male) officers and male inmates are not uncommon.

Fatal Environment

The upshot of all this, officers claim, is that Texas prisoners are out of control. "The inmates have seen us on TV, saying we're shorthanded. They say, 'Hey, you better watch your back,'" said Mario Muñiz. That's good advice. Today's inmates are more violent in general, many officers say, more likely to be in gangs, more likely to be serving longer sentences with less to lose. The union cites a tremendous increase in assaults by inmates on staff, from just 132 in 1988, to over 2,000 in 1999. Some of that increase is due to changes in what is counted as an assault. In 1999, for example, roughly one-third of assaults did not involve a weapon. These can range from throwing a punch to shoving a guard. The remaining two-thirds were categorized as "assaults with a weapon," but only a small percentage of these, about 5%, involved what would normally be considered a weapon outside of prison. Over half involved throwing a liquid, such as water or tea, at a guard. Another 16% involved bodily fluids, which include spit, urine, or feces (the practice of "chunking," or saving excrement to throw on guards, was made a felony offense in the last legislative session). Other "weapons" include food, doors, handcuffs, and chairs.

But that is not to say that inmates do not seriously injure guards, as well as one another, on a regular basis. In early March, a McConnell guard was speared through the testicles with a homemade spear called a paper pole. A paper pole is a conical tube fashioned from paper, tightly rolled and sealed with tape, stuffed with toilet paper to make it hard, and fitted with a sharp point (from a ballpoint pen or a disposable razor, for example). It is delivered by hand, or launched with a piece of rubber stretched taut into a powerful slingshot. Paper poles can be fired across buildings from one block of cells to another. Inmates will fashion a makeshift knife, or shank, out of almost anything. Pens and pencils are frequently used as stabbing weapons. And there is always a sudden fist or a foot to watch out for. ("He stole me," guards say, when an inmate gives them an unexpected blow.)

But the men in white are not the only violent people in Texas prisons. That is the flip side to the union's claim of more violent inmates, according to Steve Martin, a prison consultant and former general counsel at TDCJ. More than anything else, Martin believes, the loss of control at McConnell and elsewhere is the result of an inexperienced work force and the poor quality of recruits. As a C.O. in the early Seventies, Martin worked his way through law school, eventually becoming general counsel at the agency during the Ruiz lawsuit. He was present when the first internal affairs division was created, and has seen any number of wardens and officials fired for corruption and brutality. Over the years, he has witnessed the transformation of the prison system from the days of building tenders to the rise of the prison gangs, which filled the power vacuum the tenders left behind. He probably knows as much about the inner workings of what remains a very secretive institution as anyone in Texas.

"The effects of a lack of training are always felt first on the inmates," said Martin. "Good, seasoned officers will act to de-escalate a potentially violent situation," but inexperienced officers will often make things worse. And more gang members mean more inmate-on-inmate violence, but not necessarily more staff assaults. "There's no angle in it," Martin said, no reason for a gang member to attack an officer. Assaults on staff can result in "free world" indictments and additional sentences. In general, Martin said, an inmate acts out only when he is provoked, or feels as if he has been. He may have to wait days or weeks to exact revenge on a particular C.O., but there will be a logic to his behavior. "In a high-security area [like administrative segregation, where a disproportionate number of incidents occur], there are any number of things an officer can do to generate supposed resistance from an inmate," Martin said. The simple act of cuffing an inmate can be made as painful as the officer cares to make it. If the inmate resists, "suddenly you've got a major use of force on your hands, precipitated solely by the officer," Martin said. "Major use of force," commonly referred to by inmates as "getting whupped," refers to an inmate being physically subdued by an officer, and a report is required for each application. McConnell officers reported 343 such incidents in 1999, ranking them near the top for all units in the system.

Such incidents often involve young bosses, still in the throes of what officers refer to as "John Wayne Syndrome." But even accounting for youth and inexperience, there is a general perception among officers that the quality of recruits has gone down. "They'll take anybody. It's become quantity over quality," said Andre Garry, an officer from Huntsville. At the food stamp office in Huntsville, according to Garry, welfare applicants are given a TDCJ application to fill out as well. All you need to get into the academy is a G.E.D. or a high school diploma. There are no height or weight requirements, and the minimum age is 18.

Institutional director Gary Johnson has conceded that some recruits have been hired that should not have been. That's why turnover, training, and quality of recruits is an inmate issue as well as an officer issue, and it explains why representatives of the Texas Inmate Family Association joined the December march in Austin for higher officer pay. Most inmates, even the guards say, just want to serve their time and get out. Until that day comes, inmate advocates want well-trained, professional guards who can protect their loved ones from other inmates, as well as from unscrupulous or violent bosses.

That makes the relationship between guards and guarded a complex one. Unarmed and outnumbered, officers rely on the goodwill of inmates, which they generate through demonstrating that they are reliable and "straight up," that is, fair. Bosses get to go home at the end of their day, and inmates do not, but for 12 hours, four days a week, officers have to live and work in the same environment as the inmates do. They share a common interest in preserving the order -- if not the benevolence -- of the institution.

Texas correctional officers in front of the Governor's Mansion for the 2000 vigil in honor of Daniel Nagle
Texas correctional officers in front of the Governor's Mansion for the 2000 vigil in honor of Daniel Nagle (Photo By Kenny Braun)

"Regardless of what some people may think, corrections is actually a demanding profession," Martin said. It's especially important to have quality people in the supervisory positions. Inmates retaliate when services are not delivered in accordance with policy, or when they feel a supervisor has not treated them fairly. One result of the rapid turnover, Martin said, is that much younger and less experienced officers are being promoted to sergeant and higher rank. It used to take three to five years to make sergeant; now most officers don't even last that long with the agency. Wardens are getting younger as well. How long it takes for new boots to get past their John Wayne phase, Martin said, depends in part on the role models they have around them.

Inmates and their families contend that officer brutality is endemic in the system, and condoned by wardens and the administration. Periodically, U.S. Judge William Wayne Justice reviews TDCJ to determine whether the system is in compliance with the Ruiz mandates, and whether the agency should be relinquished from federal oversight. Last year he declined once again to end oversight, after hearing three weeks of testimony about treatment of prisoners. Just a few days after he handed down his decision, a senior warden was demoted at the Estelle Unit near Huntsville after he authorized shooting a "muzzle blast" -- a 37-millimeter gun that delivers enough mace to clear a large room -- into a 6x9' cell, to subdue an out-of-control inmate. It could have killed that inmate. The warden, Fred Figueroa, was just 35 when he was made a senior warden at the high security unit, one of the state's toughest prisons.

Youth and inexperience were blamed for one of the most egregious incidents in recent years, at the Terrell Unit near Livingston. In October of 1994, following a free-for-all brawl between inmates and officers, over a dozen officers visited the cells of inmates involved and delivered retaliatory beatings, which resulted in the death of one inmate. Two officers were charged with murder. Also in 1994, the Houston Chronicle obtained an internal memo describing several internal affairs investigations into guard brutality at various units. At McConnell, investigators had uncovered an organized clique of guards who called themselves the "blue bandanas," and who were suspected of organizing retaliatory assaults on inmates. Several McConnell officers were eventually fired as a result of that investigation, and two were indicted for assault and tampering with a witness, the latter for threats against fellow employees not to testify against them. One current C.O. at McConnell said he once asked a blue bandana member why he joined. "We represent the gray," the guard told him.

According to Sammy Buentello, director of the agency's Security Threat Group Management office, the blue bandanas never resurfaced after that investigation was completed. But tales of out-of-control officers and supervisors continue to plague the unit. Sexual harassment is rife, several guards said. "Everybody warned me about the man in white. Nobody told me to watch the man in gray," said one former female McConnell officer, who filed a successful sexual harassment suit against her former supervisor. Her husband, who also worked at McConnell, says he was retaliated against by her former supervisors until he, too, left the agency. He is currently suing the agency. In 1994, dozens of complaints of sexual harassment were logged, and numerous lawsuits filed against TDCJ for failure to discipline violators. In the summer of 1994, a McConnell sergeant pleaded guilty to attempted sexual assault of a female guard, who was on duty at the time. She later filed a lawsuit against him, the board, and the former executive director, claiming that it was "the de facto policy and custom" of the agency to "allow sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape of female employees by supervisors, and to ignore complaints." Executive director Wayne Scott appears in a video about sexual harassment all officers are required to watch. Titled "Zero Tolerance," the video is widely ridiculed at the agency, which commonly transfers supervisors accused of harassment, according to officers.

Working With the Syndicate

So who killed Daniel Nagle, and why? Several officers (and a McConnell inmate) interviewed for this story aren't buying the agency's prime suspect, Robert Lynn Pruett, a young white inmate serving a life sentence. (He was not officially named until his March 21 indictment, but his removal from the unit the evening of the crime identified him as the key suspect). "This guy couldn't have done it," said one officer who knew the inmate personally. "He didn't have it in him." There is a clear division among inmates, officers say, between those who will fight to protect themselves and those who will not. The inevitability of violence inside the system renders it almost banal for most officers, and there is a palpable indifference in their frank descriptions of it, as in the case of Pruett, who they say was frequently on the receiving end of violence. "Officers have walked up on this inmate getting raped before, he's been discovered beaten unconscious in the kitchen, he's tried to commit suicide several times. He's a little patsy," one officer said. He believes that TDCJ wants Pruett to take the blame because the real story is much more damning for the unit and for the agency.

The officers say the real story is right in front of the agency's nose. Most of Nagle's union brothers knew that their president was preparing a lengthy grievance in the months before he died. He reportedly told a number of people that he had "TDCJ by the balls" and that "there was nothing they could do about it." McConnell bosses close to Nagle say they understood that at least a part of what Nagle was investigating had to do with dirty bosses, possibly including supervisors. Several C.O.s I spoke with believe these dirty bosses were in league with prison gangs at various Beeville prison units, and that they and their gang associates inside had something to do with Nagle's murder. "He was getting too close to somebody's operation," one officer said. That's not as far-fetched as it may sound.

The day I arrived in Beeville, TDCJ internal affairs investigators arrested three correctional officers -- one of them a sergeant -- in a restaurant parking lot in Goliad, about 30 miles north of Beeville on Highway 59. Investigators confiscated a package containing $60,000. The officers, a husband and wife from the McConnell Unit and a boss -- the wife's brother -- from the Garza West Unit (in collusion with a fourth officer from the McConnell Unit, arrested later that day), were to deposit the money in a bank account, apparently on behalf of inmates. Their cut was to have been $10,000. On March 21, all four were indicted on bribery charges -- on the same day that Nagle's accused killer was indicted on charges of capital murder of a correctional officer.

That $60,000, plus a great deal more, could easily have been generated by contraband sales to inmates. A single cigarette sells for two or three dollars inside a unit, where inmate smoking has been banned since 1995. Other drugs, like pot, cocaine, and heroin, sell for much more than their street value. Contraband sales are controlled by the prison gangs. In South Texas (as in most of the state), the strongest of the gangs are the Texas Syndicate and the Mexican Mafia -- two Latino gangs that exist both inside and in the free world. Virtually the only way for inmates to get contraband inside is through the guards, who are not searched as they enter and leave. Everyone knows this. According to Bee County Assistant District Attorney Herb Hancock, whose district encompasses eight or nine South Texas prison units, his office indicts "several" C.O.s every month on bribery charges. Most get probation, he says. (He also gets inmate-officer sex cases every month, he says.)

Dirty bosses are a fact of life, says Mario Muñiz. "They get new trucks, they get into debt, they can't make their payments," he said. "But they can get $50 for a pack of smokes." The boss smuggles in the goods, which the gangs then resell at even higher prices, earning thousands of dollars. "But they suck you in, and pretty soon it's more and more," Muñiz said. If a boss later tries to get out of the arrangement, the inmates give him up to internal affairs. Thus the dirty bosses and the gangs either prosper or go down together. "That [officer] is my boy," is an expression often heard in gang circles inside, according to a McConnell inmate.

Where does all the gang money go? Much of it ends up in free world bank accounts, or is laundered somehow in Bee County. For that, you need people outside, and the best link to the outside world is the man in gray, who goes back and forth every day. The TDCJ does not deny that guards and gangs collude, but the story is seldom reported, because internal affairs investigations are not generally made available to the public. Often they end in quiet terminations (or, as some officers allege, merely transfers), rather than arrests. The press does not get wind of it. TDCJ's Sammy Buentello concedes that it's a longstanding problem at the agency. "Ever since we've had prison gangs, there have been some officers that have been lured I guess you'd say to the dark side," he said. "My understanding is there was some ties to prison gang activity," he said of the recent arrests in Goliad and Beeville, although he stressed that he had yet to see the internal affairs report.

Several officers claimed it was widely known that at least one of the officers arrested in Goliad was affiliated with Texas Syndicate. "This is what we're trying to get rid of," one C.O. at the union hall told me. (In private, one officer later named three other alleged Texas Syndicate guards.) Many of the officers I spoke with at the union hall considered themselves to be at war with this element within TDCJ, and they are very afraid of losing that war. Danny Nagle was their leader in this effort, though it was an issue that few guards liked to talk about openly. The prison administration may have known about his efforts as well. About a month before his death, Nagle's name was reportedly discovered on a "kite," a clandestine note from one inmate to another. The warden reportedly warned Nagle that the note was a hit list, and that one or another prison gang wanted the officer dead.

Nagle took the threat seriously, but short of quitting, there were few precautions he could have taken. He was used to feeling threatened on the job. Even before the kite was discovered, his friends say, he felt targeted by his supervisors because of his firm advocacy for fellow officers and his strict adherence to policy. He would refuse any order that wasn't by the book, and that made him unpopular with some supervisors. TDCJ has a long and well-documented history of retaliation, much of it exposed during the Ruiz hearings. According to a document obtained by The Texas Observer, in a 10-month period of 1999, nearly 300 officers filed grievances citing harassment and/or retaliation by their supervisors or fellow officers. Nagle's name was on the list. (Immediately following his death, agency spokespersons denied that Nagle's murder had anything to do with his union activities. No union official has ever implied otherwise.) Nagle had applied for a transfer to the unit in Gatesville, where his wife Crystal's family lives.

"You Didn't See That"

Crystal Nagle moved to Gatesville shortly after her husband's funeral, and bought a house with the insurance money she received on his policy, which paid a double indemnity for accidental death. Since her departure, union officers say, the whereabouts of Nagle's files -- including the material supporting the grievance he was preparing -- has become something of a mystery. Several TDCJ officials, including executive director Wayne Scott, came to Beeville to meet with Crystal the evening of the murder. Several union guards reported seeing TDCJ officials at the union office that night. Crystal has not given any press interviews since her husband was killed, "on the advice of her attorney," according to Debbie Creary, the union rep for Gatesville officers. Creary said that Crystal's parents have kept her secluded, away from her former friends and acquaintances, and from union members in general.

Did something in Nagle's files point internal affairs investigators to the McConnell officers busted in Goliad? Did the agency ignore the threat to his life? For now, the agency is keeping its cards close to its vest, refusing to comment on any connection between the murder and the bribery bust.

"You didn't see that," is a common refrain among officers inside McConnell, one boss told me. The free world rarely even tries to look, and that is how the agency prefers it; since Ruiz, any news has been bad news. For those who do take a closer look, the effort can be discouraging.

The inmates wear white. The guards wear gray. Beyond that, it gets hard to see. end story

Nate Blakeslee is a staff writer for The Texas Observer (, where this story first appeared.

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