About 30 inmates and 20 prison guards were injured during an Oct. 10 riot of some 1,500 convicts, the director of the Texas Department of Corrections said yesterday.
TDC Director W. J. Estelle Jr. disclosed details of the riot and other events of a two-week-old inmate strike during a press conference that marked the end of a one-week news blackout on the strike.
Estelle, whose agency also has been hit with a massive civil rights suit, said the strike is "98 percent over."
The riot took place at one of the 15 units of the prison system, the 4,000-inmate Coffield facility near the town of Palestine in rural east Texas, in the midst of the strike at that and five other institutions. Estelle said the riot began when inmates refused to answer a morning work call and barricaded themselves in a portion of the prison.
Guards armed with tear gas and riot batons quelled the disturbance after a three-hour battle with inmates wielding mop and broom handles, pieces of broken furniture and pots of boiling water, he said.
Only one inmate, whose shoulder blade was broken, is still hospitalized, he said. Most of the injured guards suffered burns from scalding water thrown at them by inmates, he said.
Before the news blackout was imposed, TDC officials also had reported three inmates had been slightly wounded by buckshot and flying gravel when an assistant warden fired a warning shot at the ground in front of a group of inmates at the Darrington prison unit.
The inmate strike, which has involved an estimated 3,600 of TDC's 24,500 inmates, coincided with the beginning of testimony in the huge civil rights lawsuit against the department.
The suit was brought by seven inmates as a class action. The U.S. Justice Department subsequently has joined the suit, which alleges overcrowding of prison cells, inadequate medical care, unsafe working conditions and brutality by guards. It is the largest federal civil rights action ever brought against a state prison system.
Estelle defended the news blackout, saying a press conference had helped spread the strike in its initial stages and more violence might have flared if the Coffield riot had been reported.
"My judgment was that the safety of people and protection of state property was an obligation best met by temporary silence," he said.
He denied that a threatened suit by the Houston chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to lift the blackout had influenced his decision to call the press conference.
Although official silence on the TDC strike has been broken, Estelle said the press will not be permitted to visit the prison units or interview prisoners "until we have had a cooling off period."
Last Friday, the Houston ACLU released a list of demands smuggled from striking inmates at the Ellis unit.
The inmates said they wanted assurance prison guards who insult or abuse prisoners will be disciplined, an end to the use of prisoners as "building tenders" (or de facto guards) and amnesty for inmates involved in the strike.
Estelle said striking inmates will be disciplined on a case-by-case basis. He said the other strike demands are issues in the federal suit against TCD "and are matters best resolved in the courtroom arena."
He said prison officials have identified about 30 inmates as strike leaders and are holding those inmates "in isolation from the rest of the prison population."
About 470 inmates at the Ellis unit remained on strike yesterday, Estelle said, and were being confined to their cells.