3 Texas COs demoted or fired after October inmate use-of-force death
It’s not clear what role each of the disciplined COs allegedly played in the incidents leading to Frank Digges' death
HUNTSVILLE, Texas — One corrections officer was fired and two ranking officials demoted last week following a bloody use-of-force incident that left a Huntsville prisoner on life support for three days until he died in a Houston hospital.
It’s not clear exactly what role each of the disciplined employees allegedly played in the incidents leading up to the October death of 63-year-old Frank Digges. However, records show one of the demoted officials — former Sgt. John Schmidt — had a history of excessive use-of-force, once landing on disciplinary probation after he repeatedly punched an inmate in the face.
After an agency review dinged him for failing to follow policy in the latest incident, he was demoted last week down to a correctional officer, as was former Lt. Vanesa Stanford, officials said. One worker — Officer Yancey Lett — was fired for excessive force in connection with the Oct. 22 altercation at the Wynne Unit.
Agency spokesman Jeremy Desel did not offer any comment on the disciplinary sanctions, and the three employees could not be reached or did not respond to the Chronicle’s requests for comment. A fourth official involved in the deadly incident was not sent for a disciplinary review, Desel said, and a fifth was reviewed and cleared.
The incident leading to Digges’ death started on Oct. 21, when he stuck his hands out the tray slot and refused to let officers close it until a sergeant showed up outside his cell. Agency officials didn’t offer details about the dispute, but Digges’ family said it was because he hadn’t been given a snack he was supposed to get in light of his hypoglycemia.
The next evening, according to officials, Digges used some type of container to toss hot water from his cell. When he refused to hand over the container, officers sprayed him with chemical agents. But he still refused to comply, officials said — so a five-person extraction team entered his cell.
By the time they left, Digges was non-responsive. Medical staff assessed his injuries, and he was rushed to a nearby hospital, then flown to Memorial Hermann in Houston.
There, he lingered on life support for a few days. When his family showed up to visit, they found him badly beaten, with staples in his head and spinal fluid leaking from his bruised and swollen eyes and nose. They took pictures to document his condition, before saying their goodbyes.
Afterward, the agency launched an internal investigation, and the Office of the Inspector General — the prison system’s investigative arm — started probing the case. The Special Prosecution Unit confirmed its investigators are looking into it as well to consider the possibility of criminal charges.
At the time of his death, Digges — who was serving a life sentence for an aggravated robbery conviction out of Harris County — had a pending federal lawsuit against prison officials at a Beaumont unit where he’d previously been housed.
“I am in fear of imminent bodily injury and death,” he wrote in the lawsuit, claiming officers were harassing him and retaliating with false disciplinary write-ups when he filed grievances. “I would ask the court to consider the allegations and facts written in this complaint in support of my life and safety.”
None of the officers named in the legal filing were among the three disciplined in connection with his death. The agency hasn’t released video of the incident, which could reveal more about individual officers’ roles. It’s not clear whether Stanford or Lett had any prior disciplinary incidents.
But records obtained by the Houston Chronicle show that Schmidt had some prior problems. He was hired in 2015, and the following year got reprimanded after he admitted to punching a prisoner nine times in the face and shoulders.
“I do not believe that this action was excessive,” he wrote in response at the time, saying the prisoner charged at him. “I used defensive tactics in order to restrain the offender and make him stop resisting.”
But an agency review found the force was excessive, and Schmidt ended up on disciplinary probation for three months
In 2017, he got written up for pushing an inmate into a cell after the man pulled away. An incident review found the use of force was justified, but Schmidt had failed to follow the proper guidelines before resorting to force.
Less than six months later, he was promoted to sergeant. Records obtained by the Chronicle only go through mid-2018, and it’s not clear if he had any problems after that.