BARTLETT, Tex. — The prison transport to this tiny city north of Austin took George Floyd past ranch land and cotton fields — worlds away from his home in Houston. But for the then-36-year-old Floyd, the spring of 2009 was another turn through a cycle of incarceration that would be both familiar and futile.
Floyd had been through stints in jail for drug possession since his 20s, spending up to several months at a time behind bars. But Bartlett State Jail was his first taste of extended time. He was sentenced there after pleading guilty to an armed robbery in Houston in 2007 and would spend nearly two years at the 1,049-bed facility.
He was one of several men accused of holding a woman at gunpoint and ransacking her home for money and drugs until they realized they had the wrong house and hustled away — but not before pistol-whipping the woman in front of her children. Floyd was arrested months later, driving what witnesses had identified as the getaway car. He is the only person who has served time for the incident, records show. The victim says she remembers Floyd’s face, and a police report states that she “tentatively” identified him in a lineup — though the photo lineup techniques investigators used are no longer approved.
At Bartlett State Jail, Floyd bunked with childhood friend Cal Wayne, who said Floyd long contended that he was innocent of that crime but took a plea deal out of concern that a jury would unfairly judge a man with previous felonies. He accepted a five-year sentence rather than risk decades in prison. He paroled out in four.
The Texas prison system’s mission was to end the type of recurrent incarceration that Floyd experienced by rehabilitating inmates and returning them to society with skills that would help them live law-abiding lives. But Floyd’s time in Bartlett State Jail only furthered his downward spiral. Behind its walls, Floyd found few opportunities to better himself, friends and relatives said, and the experience only exacerbated his depression, drug dependency and claustrophobia — the very issues that would play a role in the final moments of his life nearly a decade later.
That final scene of Floyd’s life ricocheted around the world in a viral video in May, his face pressed against the pavement of a Minneapolis street while an officer pushed a knee into his neck. As police placed him in handcuffs, accusing Floyd of using a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store, he pleaded for his freedom, dreading a return to the system.
“I don’t want to go back to that,” he yelled.
“He didn’t want to go back to that pain that he had before,” said his childhood friend Travis Cains. “He’s saying, ‘I’m not that type of guy. I’m a good guy.’ He wanted a new life. He wanted to be in a new world.”
Floyd was caught in the grips of America’s tough-on-crime era. Police were making misdemeanor arrests for broken windows, judges were handing down lengthier sentences for minor crimes and new prisons were being constructed, then quickly filled.
Texas was on the bleeding edge. The state’s prison system tripled in size between 1990 and 2000 after voters authorized $1.7 billion in bonds, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute. By the turn of the century, the report said, one out of every four Black men in Texas was under the supervision of the state Department of Criminal Justice.
By the time Floyd arrived at Bartlett State Jail, the crackdown’s disproportionate effect on Black Texans was glaring. In 2010, Floyd’s last full year in that facility, Black people made up 12 percent of the Texas population — but 32 percent of those in prisons and jails.
On the other side of the barbed wire, the Texas towns that housed the new penal facilities prospered.
In Bartlett — an impoverished former cotton-shipping town — the state jail contributed a third of the city’s budget. In the years after it was constructed, the economic windfall helped patch up the city’s crumbling infrastructure and breathed life into restaurants and gas stations that served jail employees.
“Some people would not want a prison in their communities; others would beg for them to be built there,” said Rodney Ellis, a commissioner for Harris County, Tex., who served as a state legislator at the height of the state jail expansion in the 1990s. “They saw it as economic development. And then, once they’re built, you have a tendency to feed the beast. People make money off other people’s misery.”
During Floyd’s time in the state jail, almost every person, organization and company associated with the facility benefited. Bartlett State Jail pumped $2 million in utility fees and local spending into its namesake city while Floyd did his time, and it created more than 200 jobs in an impoverished city of fewer than 2,000 residents.
For the company that owned it, the Bartlett facility became a staple of the Corrections Corporation of America’s prison empire, increasing profits year over year. And for the state of Texas, the private facility was part of a strategy that allowed the Department of Criminal Justice to deliver $55 million in cost savings on its budget.
Bartlett became an economic life raft for many. But behind its gates, Floyd languished.
The policies that would make America one of the most incarcerated nations in the world were born around the same time George Floyd was.
Social upheaval sparked by the civil rights movement had unsettled many Americans. Riots erupted in more than 100 American cities after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The Black Panther Party, with its anti-police message and armed self-defense approach to fighting racism, had its largest membership in 1970.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon and other politicians capitalized on that fear by declaring a War on Drugs, which ballooned police department budgets and clamped down on newly labeled wrongdoers — disproportionately Black Americans.
The anti-crime sentiments weren’t limited to the federal government or to conservative politicians, especially as the crack cocaine epidemic infected American cities. By the 1990s, both major parties had adopted tough-on-crime stances.
The House version of the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was sponsored by a Democratic Texas congressman. The Senate version was sponsored by a Democrat from Delaware named Joe Biden, and the final bill was signed into law by President Bill Clinton (D). The legislation paid to put 100,000 new police officers on American streets and provided $9.7 billion for new prisons.
The state of Texas — where Floyd accrued most of his criminal charges, beginning with a six-month sentence for selling less than a gram of cocaine in 1997 — was ahead of the tough-on-crime curve, said Robert Perkinson, author of “Texas Tough,” a book about the rise of prisons in the Lone Star State. In the 1990s, under governors Ann Richards and George W. Bush, Texas beefed up sentences for offenders who would fill fresh prison beds. By the year 2000, more than one in every 100 Texans was behind bars, according to the Justice Policy Institute, a rate second only to Louisiana.
“States that have much higher per capita incarceration send people who’ve committed less serious crimes to prison at a higher rate and for a longer time,” Perkinson said. Texas was “destroying the lives of people and devoting a lot of government resources to doing so. … Such a hyperinflation took place that a lot of the system just turned into warehousing people.”
It was an expensive endeavor, and Texas officials began looking for ways to cut costs without harming their tough-on-crime stance.
In 1993, the state legislature created the state jail felony system, a new crime category that diverted nonviolent, low-level offenders away from costly and overcrowded state prisons to low-security facilities for up to two years. State jails, like the one Floyd was sent to in Bartlett, took on a mission of rehabilitation, adopting educational, vocational and drug treatment programs that sought to prepare inmates to successfully reintegrate into their communities.
But the court system did not fully invest in the programs for treatment and rehabilitation, according to Doug Smith, a senior policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Ultimately, state jails had the opposite of their intended effect — producing the highest rearrest rates in Texas, studies found.
The few, underfunded rehabilitative programs that were offered in the state jail were difficult to access for inmates like Floyd, who served 21 months at Bartlett before being transferred to a state prison. Those with shorter stays were placed at the bottom of long waiting lists for vocational training and other programs, which gave priority to inmates who had more time to successfully complete the curriculums, Smith said. Academically, Bartlett offered little more than GED classes, of no benefit to Floyd, who had spent some time in college.
Floyd and the other prisoners spent much of their days watching soap operas and game shows from their bunks in rooms that lacked air conditioning, trying not to exert themselves too much in the Texas heat.
The new rehabilitative state jails “all became penal facilities,” said Dallas District Attorney John Creuzot, who was a judge when then-Gov. Richards appointed him to a state commission that rewrote parts of the state’s penal code that would send offenders to the facilities.
Now, more than a quarter-century after it was created, the state jail system is widely viewed as a failure. A 2019 report by the Texas House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence blasted the facilities.
“State jails have come to incarcerate people who pose little threat to society at great cost and in ways that don’t increase public safety but do make re-offense more likely,” the report said. Because state jail stays were too short to make any meaningful changes in a prisoner’s life, the report concluded, vocational training and substance abuse treatment were “underutilized and ineffective.”
“The end result is state jails that merely warehouse inmates who unproductively serve out their time until being released, with no new resources, into the same conditions that led them to jail in the first place — most often, drug addiction and poverty,” the report said.
Prisoners and profits
As tough-on-crime states struggled with ballooning prison budgets, private facilities operated by the Corrections Corporation of America offered an immediate solution.
The company — founded in 1983, the same year it received its first federal contract — told states, the U.S. government and shareholders it could transport and house inmates more efficiently than governments. It also offered a chance to relieve governments of weighty pension obligations for prison guards and other workers that could saddle states with debt for decades.
CCA determined that it could house George Floyd, State Identification No. 01566124, and the other inmates at Bartlett for less than $30 a day, according to its contract. According to its annual report, the company made a daily profit of $18.20 for every person it imprisoned in 2010.
Paul Mathis, who worked intermittently as a guard at Bartlett State Jail, said the company paid him $9.48 an hour around the time Floyd was there. But high staff turnover and no-shows made overtime easy to come by — and time-and-a-half sent his pay north of $14 an hour.
At the time Floyd was at Bartlett, Corrections Corporation of America housed more prisoners than all but three states and the federal government. In 2010, Floyd’s last year at Bartlett, CCA took in nearly $1.7 billion in revenue and made more than $157 million in profit, marking five years of consistent increases.
Detractors accused corporate prisons of menial wages, lax standards for guards and high employee turnover. CCA used cameras instead of guards to monitor Bartlett’s perimeter, even after an investigation found that no one was watching the camera monitors as two inmates used a pair of stolen pliers to cut through the gate in August 2000.
CCA, which changed its name to CoreCivic in 2016, said it tries to focus on providing programs and other assistance to help inmates successfully rejoin their communities. The company would not detail which programs Floyd was involved in at Bartlett, if any, but said it provided an array of services.
“During our tenure as the operator of the Bartlett State Jail, the individuals in our care were provided a wide range of programmatic opportunities in adherence with our management contract and geared toward preparing individuals to successfully rejoin their communities and families,” CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said in a statement, adding that the jail followed the curriculum of the Windham School District, which provides education services to prisoners in Texas. “We are proud to have helped many student inmates at Bartlett earn their GEDs and industry recognized certificates, which help reduce their likelihood of returning to prison and increase their chances of earning gainful employment.”
Floyd dodged the most perilous traps of incarceration while at Bartlett, evading prison gangs and violence, Wayne said. He found opportunities to work, starting in the prison laundry, but spent the bulk of his time as a porter, carting toiletries and other essentials around the facility — labor that was unpaid, according Wayne, Floyd’s friend and bunkmate.
Wayne, who was serving time for forgery and drug convictions, remembers his bunkmate getting into just one confrontation at Bartlett, with people upset that he had dominated a basketball game. The low-key prison experience was partly due to Floyd’s genial personality, but also because he knew too many infractions meant he would serve every second of his five-year sentence. It’s where being a muscular 6-foot-6 from the Cuney Homes projects came in handy, Wayne said. Few were willing to test whether Floyd’s “Jolly Green Giant” nickname was a misnomer.
But the moniker was deserved, say those who know Floyd well. When Wayne’s wife sent him a letter in prison saying their marriage was over, Wayne was too emotional to read it, so Floyd relayed it to him. At night, in the un-air-conditioned bunk room that they shared with more than 50 other men, Floyd and Wayne talked about what they would do when they got out: Wayne wanted to pursue a music career, and Floyd would be his bodyguard, occasionally appearing on tracks.
Months later, Floyd cried near the end of his time at Bartlett, knowing he would be separated from a man he’d long thought of as a brother. He was transferred to Diboll State Prison — as required by his sentence, given the seriousness of the crime — to serve two more years before making parole. But his challenges wouldn’t end even after he made it to the other side of the prison walls.
‘Nothing but time’
Bartlett State Jail shut down in 2017, a victim of the criminal justice reform efforts that have sought to shrink prison populations and reverse the legacy of the tough-on-crime era.
But the facility still stands, mothballed by the state in case inmate numbers surge again. The sign outside has faded under a relentless Texas sun, but the barbed wire fences are in good shape, maintained by a skeleton crew.
The city of Bartlett didn’t let go of the financial boon easily.
When the idea for a prison was first floated here in the early 1990s, the town’s brightest days were nearly a century behind it, when two rail lines ran through downtown and created a hub for cotton. It eventually became a hub of decaying shells of buildings instead, bypassed by the technology boom along the Interstate 35 corridor during the 2010s.
Bartlett residents, about three-quarters White, initially worried that a prison would pose a public safety threat. But city leaders stressed the economic benefits, pitching the jail as an anchor for the city’s return to prosperity.
“The citizens of Bartlett were told that it was going to be a minimum-security prison — basically a misdemeanor clearinghouse,” said James Grant, who was mayor when George Floyd was imprisoned there. “And another part of the condition was that they were supposed to hire a bunch of local people.”
The city wooed the private prison, spending $100,000 to buy the needed land and passing a $1.9 million bond referendum to help pay for the water, sewage, electrical and street improvements around the property, Grant said.
The benefits accrued quickly: CCA touted the fact that the state jail pumped $868,000 into the city’s water utility every year and another $166,000 into local businesses. For residents, water bills plateaued, and the city began replacing antiquated clay pipes with more durable metal ones.
The economic benefit was so great that when the state of Texas sought to close the jail, Grant and other city leaders pleaded with prison officials to keep it open, at least temporarily. The jail, Grant wrote, “has been tightly woven into the fabric of the community. The prison is now a critical financial component of the City and its loss would have a significant impact on our budget.”
In a letter to state representatives, Grant wrote, “Our citizens and other families would find it impossible to absorb the sudden monetary loss of this state facility and the employees that live in our neighborhoods.”
Three years later, once-well-paved streets are badly in need of repair and downtown’s once-stately buildings are vacant or dilapidated or both. Outside City Hall in late summer, a meeting notice warned that one of Bartlett’s well pumps had broken and that the city had to address “an imminent threat to public health and safety.”
The city’s poverty rate is now above 18 percent, nearly double the national rate.
City leaders remain hopeful that the state will reopen the site as a detention facility for immigrants or juveniles — moves that would breathe life into the city of Bartlett again.
But for Floyd, the life inside of him gradually diminished during his time at Bartlett and other jails and prisons, friends and relatives said. He transformed from a confident and ambitious man into a quietly pensive and increasingly anxious one whose dreams dwindled by the month. His initial time in a cramped, Harris County jail cell exacerbated his claustrophobia, a fear he carried for the rest of his life. It’s unclear when Floyd’s drug use spiraled into drug abuse, but there’s no evidence that, while incarcerated, he received adequate treatment.
Floyd emerged from prison with a steely determination never to return, but he struggled to reintegrate into society once freed. Prison overcrowding meant that he and many other inmates had been shuttled far from home, all but guaranteeing that their connections with their communities were frayed. Even a short jail stay could ruin opportunities for employment, and a felony record is an automatic strike.
“That’s almost an impossible task even for somebody with a lot of skills and a lot of education,” Perkinson said. “Coming out of prison with no money, no contacts, no place to live other than depending on your low-income relatives in a demographic that’s already suffering high unemployment or underemployment or low compensation in a place like Texas that has no safety net — making it out of those circumstances would be a huge challenge even if you didn’t have a criminal record.”
George Floyd had driven forklifts at a plant that made equipment for handling radiation, his family said, but even that job was closed off to him with a prison record.
Floyd’s childhood friend Cains, who worked as a bail bondsman, had stayed in touch with Floyd via phone while he was at Bartlett, and he knew that any effort to better his life would be harder after years behind bars and a fresh felony on his record. Texas’s prison system had done Floyd no favors.
“Bartlett was nothing but time,” he said. “He didn’t get no trade or education. No treatment. It was just time.”
Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.