The announcement followed a public demand from state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) that TDJC immediately suspend transporting violent inmates pending review and investigation of last week’s murders.
“While the investigation continues into exactly what happened with the recent escape and tragic murder of 5 members of the Collins family, we must act swiftly to ensure no other Texan is in danger of losing their life or being harmed by an escaped inmate being transported on Texas roads,” said Whitmire in a written statement Monday.
Chair of the state Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee, Whitmire told The Texan that prior to the suspension, TDCJ was transporting as many as 2,000 inmates each day, with about half of those moved for medical care.
“Most inmates are transported to the prison system hospital in Galveston for medical care,” said Whitmire. “Even from correctional facilities in Amarillo or Fort Stockton.”
Inmates in the western portion of the state until about 2002 were treated at the University Medical Center operated by Texas Tech University in Lubbock, but after the assault and rape of several hospital employees, few medical facilities other than that operated by the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston have been willing to treat inmates.
Whitmire says TDCJ also transfers convicts due to problems cooperating with staff or other inmates.
During a May 12 transport by bus along with 16 other inmates, 46-year-old suspect Gonzalo Lopez was able to remove his leg and hand restraints and cut his way out of a metal cage before stabbing the bus driver with a weapon or tool.
After Lopez and the driver exited the bus, a second guard approached them, but Lopez was able to reboard and drive away. The TDCJ chief of staff said the guards shot out the rear tire of the bus, but Lopez escaped into the woods on foot, leading to a three-week manhunt that included the Texas Rangers and U.S. Marshals.
After a concerned relative asked police to check on a family property in Centerville, police found the bodies of 66-year-old Mark Collins, 18-year-old Waylon Collins, 16-year-old Carson, and 11-year-olds Hudson and Bryson Collins on June 2. The five family members had been shot to death and a 1999 Chevy Silverado truck was missing.
Suspecting Lopez, police sent out a new statewide alert, and later that evening officers spotted the missing truck in Atascosa County south of San Antonio. After police used spike strips to disable the truck, Lopez continued to drive while firing at pursuing officers before he crashed the vehicle and exited. Lopez was killed in an exchange of gunfire with pursuing officers.
A known member of the “Mexican Mafia” gang, Lopez was serving multiple life sentences for capital murder and attempted capital murder at a state prison in Gatesville, Texas.
While calling for a full investigation, Whitmire has also urged the TDCJ to keep violent offenders in prison units closer to medical facilities, use telemedicine for inmates, or have medical teams visit incarceration units. If transportation is necessary, Whitmire said policies should include requiring three armed correctional officers on a bus and a trailing vehicle with additional armed officers.
“This is a terrible wake up call that security of inmate transportation is taken too lightly,” said Whitmire.
The Mexican Mafia gang, or Mexikanemi, operates in prisons across the southwestern United States and runs drug trafficking operations across the southern border. In 2013, an informant tipped authorities that the Texas Mexican Mafia had ordered members to gun down Whitmire at an Austin restaurant, prompting extra security for the senator.
The four Collins children murdered included three brothers and one cousin, all of whom attended Tomball public schools in Harris County, Texas.
After Lopez’s escape on May 12, the TDCJ announced that national, state, and local law enforcement were using more than 500 personnel to conduct the “largest concentrated manhunt” since 2005. The agency also offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the capture of Lopez and used heat-seeking satellites and helicopters to locate the fugitive.
At 2:30 a.m. on Tuesday, a TDCJ van transporting an inmate and three prison staff members from the Galveston hospital to a correctional facility three and half hours away in Rusk, Texas was involved in a crash with another vehicle in Conroe.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.