4 Texas COs fired, 2 resign after #FeelingCute challenge photos spark probe

After spotting the images on a then-open officers' Facebook group, inmate families began emailing department officials with screenshots, demanding action


Keri Blakinger
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Four Texas corrections officers were fired and another two resigned under investigation after a controversial string of social media pictures posted as part of the so-called "Feeling Cute Challenge."

Officials did not immediately clarify what units the officers worked at, what rank they held or which posts were flagged for concern following the spate of questionable images posted by law enforcement officers across the country.

The posts typically feature men and women taking selfies in police, corrections and other public employee uniforms with captions ranging from tongue-in-cheek to inflammatory, accompanied by the hashtag #feelingcute and a joke about what they might do at work that day.

"Feeling cute, might just gas some inmates today, IDK," one poster captioned a selfie of a woman wearing what appears to be a Texas Department of Criminal Justice uniform.

"#feelingcute my (sic) gas the whole wing later," another poster wrote next to a selfie showing a man wearing a uniform featuring a TDCJ patch. Both posters' names match up to prison employees, though neither responded to the Houston Chronicle's request for comment and it's not clear if they are among the six who were under investigation by the department.

The posts that sparked the probe went up earlier this month, as first reported by the Chronicle last week. After spotting the images on a then-open officers' Facebook group, inmate families began emailing department officials with screenshots, demanding immediate action.

Officials launched a probe, and Executive Director Bryan Collier addressed public concerns in a statement posted Wednesday on Facebook

"Currently, 6 of the more than 25,000 correctional officers employed by this agency are under investigation for on and off-duty conduct violations as a result of the alleged posting of inappropriate photographs and comments on social media," he wrote. "These officers in no way represent the thousands of TDCJ employees who go to work every day taking public safety seriously in all ways. Investigations are ongoing."

Apparently a variation of the "feeling cute, might delete later" meme, the social media fad took off in early April when workers started posting images of themselves in uniform riffing on what they might do at work that day. But the posts soon sparked backlash, as when police in Aransas Pass joked about pulling over people and when a water worker posted about cutting off customers' utilities.

"Feeling cute, might cut your water off later, IDK," wrote a man whose uniform identified him as a water worker in Georgia. Columbus Water Works responded in a statement to the local paper there.

"Although Columbus Water Works received very few comments on this post from customers," a spokesman told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, "CWW certainly understands that continued discussions with our employees on social media usage and its potential impact is important."

Afterward, the trend spread, eventually popping up on a Facebook page titled Correctional Officer Life. The page has more than 29,000 members across the country and has since been set to private.

Some of the images offered inoffensive captions.

"Good morning from Texas," wrote one woman sporting a prison worker uniform. "#feelingcutechallenge."

But others included more eyebrow-raising phrases.

"San Diego BOP #feelingcutechallenge feeling cute may spray my partner to keep interesting," read the caption on one post.

"Felt cute... might wrestle an inmate later," read the caption next to a selfie of a man in a sheriff's office uniform from Williamson County. The poster did not respond to a message from the Chronicle, and a sheriff's office spokeswoman did not immediately offer comment.

It's not clear if any Houston-area officers participated in the so-called "challenge." Houston police spokesman Victor Senties said the department would typically not confirm whether any of its employees were under investigation, and Harris County Sheriff's Office spokesman Jason Spencer said he was not aware of any disciplinary actions against deputies or detention officers there.

Policy experts and advocates said that, even given the prison guard firings, the incident speaks to the need for independent oversight and cultural change at the state agency.

"It's very encouraging that the agency took such decisive and quick action in response to this incident, but I continue to think that the situation demands a close look at the cultural issues that permitted any staff to think that such sentiments were acceptable," said Michele Deitch, an attorney and criminal justice expert who teaches at University of Texas-Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs.

"This is just one more example of why we need independent oversight to look at cultural issues within the facilities as well as structural issues and policy matters that can affect the treatment of prisoners."

Reggie Smith, a former prisoner who's now a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, also framed it as a cultural problem.

"We had a saying in prison, the [officers] are doing time too - they just get to go home at night," he said. "In this prison culture, it'll take a person who comes in a really good person and they'll change. We really need to change that dynamic in prison that dehumanizes people behind bars."

A spokesman for the Texas corrections officer employee union did not immediately offer comment on the posts or the agency's response.

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