A Texas correctional officer killed while escorting a prisoner to his cell was beaten to death with a two-foot "pry bar" tool guards carry to unlock the small meal tray openings in cell doors, The Texas Tribune has confirmed with a source close to the investigation.
Correctional Officer Timothy Davison, 47, died on Wednesday after suffering injuries inflicted with what is known as a "pry bar" or "tray tool," a bar he carried to activate the spring bolt lock that keeps a slot open or closed in a cell door.
Davison was escorting a handcuffed Billy Joel Tracy, 37, from a recreation area inside the Telford Unit in northeast Texas when Tracy somehow slipped one hand from the restraints and began beating Davison, pulling him to the ground, the source told the Tribune.
Tracy then grabbed the pry tool from Davison, who was hired less than a year ago, and began beating him with it.
The tools remain on a cellblock and are used only in prisons with single solitary confinement cells. On any given day in Texas, hundreds of the tools pass from shift to shift, and are carried by some of the 22,000 or more correctional officers who work in those maximum-security areas. There are 5,711 inmates confined, as Tracy was, in solitary confinement.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice refused to disclose what weapon was used to kill Davison, or how the beating occurred. "I'm not discussing what was used in the attack," said Jason Clark, a spokesman for the state prison agency.
Pry bars have been a concern for a while, said Lance Lowry, president of the state's correctional employees union.
"It's a bad idea to carry a big pry bar in prison," he said. Davison's death is prompting the union to ask the agency to consider retrofitting the food tray slot locks with more modern, safer mechanisms.
"We're going to ask the state to get rid of it because it's clearly a danger," said Lowry, who added the pry bar puts both officers and offenders at risk of attack and injury.
In a 2015 federal lawsuit filed against a Texas correctional officer, an inmate claimed he was attacked for no reason. But court documents in that lawsuit, filed in Amarillo, show that a correctional officer testified that the inmate was restrained to prevent him from obtaining a pry bar from another officer.
Clark, the TDCJ spokesman said, the prison agency has not identified any other incidents involving the use of a pry tool against an officer.
Texas correctional officers do not carry weapons inside the prison units. They wear protective vests, carry pepper spray and radios, along with keys and pry bars.
It's not known exactly why Texas opts for the older pry bar instead of keys. State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and arguably the lawmaker best versed in prison operations, declined to comment Thursday on the use of the tray slot tools.
"They need to come with a better locking mechanism. This is not the first incident the agency has had with tray lock bars," Lowry said.
Tracy, 37, has not been charged in Davison's death, which is under investigation by the state prison system's Office of Inspector General. Tracy, who came to TDCJ to serve a life sentence for aggravated assault out of Rockwall County, has also been convicted for attacking two different correctional officers. In 2005, he stabbed a correctional officer in the Clements Unit five times with a metal object, and in 2011 he was convicted for attacking another correctional officer in another prison.
It is not known if Davison's attack was recorded by a digital camera. Documents submitted by TDCJ to the federal government show that 141 digital cameras have been installed in Telford Unit, with plans to install another 600.