My Labor Day, off-the-record talk with Gov. Mark White after the 25th state prison inmate killing

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

Labor Day is a great three-day weekend, and it remains one of my favorite. I’ll tell you why in a minute.

The reason has little to do with the actual holiday.

It’s celebrated on the first Monday of September each year. Families use it to relax, go to picnics and enjoy the great outdoors one more time. Politicians use it to make speeches.

In 1985, I was paid by the Houston Chronicle overtime to work a story on Labor Day Monday about Gov. Mark White making an appearance in Brazoria County.

I always jumped at the opportunity to work some extra hours on weekends. It was good money, plus I don’t like going places when everybody else is going places.

White made the expected Labor Day speech, and then I approached him for an interview. There was little security, if any, and nobody checked my credentials. They just believed what I told them, that I was a Chronicle reporter covering the event, which I was.

I introduced myself and turned on the tape recorder to ask him a few questions about the inmate killings in Texas prisons.

What does that have to do with Labor Day? he asked.

Nothing.

He answered the questions politely, like a politician.

In Brazoria County alone, there were 25 inmates killed by other inmates in one year inside state prisons. I had been covering them and other prison stories almost non-stop for the Chronicle.

The Brazoria County post became the state prison news post because of all the gang-induced violence. My friend Frank Klimko, the Chronicle reporter in Huntsville, did the same thing – wrote prison stories almost full-time.

White recognized my name. Toth was not that common of a name around here. Neither was Klimko. He knew who we were. He had read our stories.

We had been on the prison beat for about a year by then. The killings started sometime in 1984, after the prisons had to eliminate their building tender system type of security, which basically means that inmates were guarding inmates.

That left a gap in the security, which was filled by the various gangs.

White asked if I could turn off the tape recorder. I did. I almost always honored such a request. Whatever the reason was, it gave me a better feel for the subject.

He wanted to talk candidly.

“You two have been turning the prison system upside down,” he said off mic.

We have written stories about the violence, I replied.

Obviously. I couldn’t ignore the fact that inmates were being killed. If I would have, dozens of other media outlets would have run with it, anyway.

He made some more comments. Then he asked a surprising question.

“What would you do?”

I don’t remember the exact words, but my reply basically amounted to shutting down everything to stop the killings, and then sorting it all out.

They were already locking down units for a while after each killing. But after searching for contraband, they opened them back up. The problem was that more contraband was smuggled in, and after they ended the lock-down, the gang activity resumed.

He didn’t say anything after that. I told him I needed to turn the tape recorder back on and asked him some more questions on the record.

On Tuesday, my story appeared on an inside page about how White was concerned about the violence, and they were working on solutions.

Like they have not done that before, right? They were working on solutions after every killing.

I covered one inmate being killed with a blow to the head while walking in a prison yard. One Monday, I covered a triple killing at the Darrington Unit that took place Sunday night, and before I could leave the prison after interviewing the warden, they had a fourth killing.

Things were a little out of control in there, I would say.

On Tuesday morning, one more thing happened. All the units went on lock-down. They held a big press conference in Huntsville, announcing that all non-gang members will be allowed to return to their daily routines as soon as this whole mess got sorted out. All suspected gang members were placed in isolation.

I don’t have any proof of my conversation with White, but it did happen. And I think I gave the governor an excellent idea.

Or, maybe it was just a coincidence. Maybe they had the plan in place already when White and I had our off-the-record discussion. Who knows? The solution wasn’t exactly rocket science.

White and I never had a chance to talk again. I never ran into him after that, but I hope that I helped plant the seed to the ultimate solution – which was sort of just common sense, anyway.

In the next 12 months, the prison system recorded only one killing.

Enjoy your three-day holiday, dear readers. I’ll visit with you again next week.