Adding insult to inury, now Texas has quit paying most guards overtime according to an item by Mike Ward in the Austin Statesman I meant to post about a couple of weeks ago ("Prison workers overtime held back," Jan. 15). That's unbelievably short-sighted - a recipe for driving away your employees in droves. Reported Ward:
"It's one more reason to find another job, and a lot of people are doing that," explained Arlan Foster, 53, an eight-year veteran correctional officer and union leader at the Plane State Jail outside Dayton, east of Houston. "Making people work overtime and then not paying them is not a good way to keep good people, even if the law allows that." ...
Texas' prison system, the second-largest in the United States, has approximately 23,500 correctional officers. At the end of November, it needed another 2,700 to be fully staffed.
At the prisons, the vacancies mean that guards must cover more than one gate, that convicts don't get to use recreation yards, that two officers are assigned to housing units instead of three, that some "pickets" — guard towers — might temporarily go unstaffed.
"That means people have to do more on their shift, cover more inmates, do more," Foster said. "We used to work eight-hour shifts. Now we're working 12-hour shifts, four days on and four days off. If you've ever worked 12-hour shifts in this environment, you know how tiring that schedule is. All you do is work, go home and sleep (and) come back to work.
"Fatigue definitely becomes a factor."
Between 500 and 600 correctional officers quit each month. That necessitates increased recruiting and training programs that, officials concede, at best just keep pace with turnover, which was 23 percent in 2005. But working in a prison is a high-stress job, they quickly add, and the Texas Youth Commission, the only other agency with correctional staffs, had a turnover rate of 32 percent last year.
"We're doing better (on retention and recruiting) than we were," Johnson said. "We hire every two weeks now. . . . We've added six more recruiters. Staffing over the past four months has improved."
Still, the view among correctional staff members is that the working environment at prisons has gotten progressively worse during the past two years: The number of vacant jobs has increased, wardens have extended shifts to stretch staffing, and guards at some prisons are not allowed to go home after their shifts end because the incoming shift has too many vacant positions.
But in the big picture the situation had grown untenable well before they made those bad decisions last year. Our prisons are jam packed and there's no money to build more or even adequately staff the ones we've got. Most Texas prisoners committed nonviolent offenses to get there, but sentences are so long that often violent offenders must be released to make room. Texas needs to set priorities, to better distinguish which offenders really need to be incarcerated and which ones could be supervised through stronger probation or other alternatives to incarceration. As retiring state Rep. Ray Allen says, we need to better distinguish between those we're afraid of, and those we're only mad at.
We'd better start soon, while Texas can still find enough people willing to take these crappy jobs. Once we can't, then what will we do?