Legislators look for changes to TDCJ in 88th Session following inmate escape

Legislators say with a surplus budget, they could make a change following the escape of Gonzalo Lopez
KBTX News 3 at Ten(Recurring)
Published: Jan. 11, 2023 at 6:09 PM CST
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AUSTIN, Texas (KBTX) - Legislators from across the state are all in Austin for the first legislative session since the escape of Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmate, Gonzalo Lopez.

Lopez escaped from a TDCJ medical transport, crashing in Centerville. After weeks on the run and hundreds of law enforcement officers pulled to the area for the search, Lopez killed a family of five before he was killed in a shootout with officers.

A recent Serious Incident Report from TDCJ shows multiple failed strip searches, broken machinery, overworked staff and severe staffing shortages contributed to the escape. Legislators say with a surplus budget in the legislative session, this might be the chance to make a change.

“We have oversight responsibility and responsibility to constituents when we have tragedies like that happen,” State Senator Charles Schwertner said. “That’s where we come in making sure that they have the vital resources. Make sure that violent criminals cannot escape and do harm to citizens.”

Schwertner represents Senate District 5, which includes Brazos, Freestone, Grimes, Leon, Limestone, Madison, Milam, Robertson, Walker, and Williamson counties.

Constituents in Leon County continue to see prison transport buses passing through town, something many say is a daily reminder of the escape. State Senator Lois Kolkhorst, covering District 18, says she can’t understand the pain the Collins family has been through and hopes changes will be brought forward.

“What a tragedy and I want to say to that family, just you know, I still pray for them still think about them and their loss,” Kolkhorst said. “I do represent Grimes County and we have units there. We’re going to have to pay our civil servants enough money that they want those jobs and they’re tough jobs.”

According to the TDCJ budget request for 2024-25, needs include funding for aging infrastructure and equipment, pay increases for staff and recruiting purposes as well as planning for an increasing inmate population. Since Lopez’s escape, transport buses have been fitted with surveillance cameras and over two dozen staff on the day of Lopez’s escape received discipline including termination, suspension and pay decreases.

According to the budget request released in August, TDCJ staff “will work over the next several months to convey the importance of this funding to lawmakers by highlighting the hard work and dedication of our officers and staff, the vital role our programming plays in the success of those incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, and our commitment to public safety and sound correctional management.”

State Representative Kyle Kacal says he plans to meet with TDCJ leaders about how legislators can help prevent an escape like Lopez’s from ever happening again.

“I will look forward to meeting with their staff and their team commissioner [Bryan] Collier has been a very good advocate. I’ve gotten to know Bryan [Collier] very well and I’m looking forward to jumping in and making sure that with this surplus we make sure that Texas is safe because safety is one of our top priorities as well,” Kacal said.

State Representative John Raney, who represents part of Brazos County, says while he’s been somewhat removed from the situation, something needs to change.

“I’m not all that familiar with that area of the state in the legislative process because I’ve been focused, primarily in my career, on education, higher education and the appropriations process. But yes, we need to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” he said.

KBTX News 3 at Six Weekday EXTENDED(Recurring)