Texas' prison overcrowding crisis has just entered a new and dangerous phase: The bill has finally come due for years of bipartisan political opportunism and willful denial. We've reached the pivotal "crossroads" predicted by the Texas Sunset Commission, and although the prison system, the Governor and the Legislature were amply warned of the problem, state government still seems caught unawares.
In an excellent story today from the Austin Statesman ("Guard shortage forces closure of prison wing in West Texas," Jan. 10), the intrepid Mike Ward reports that a 300-bed wing of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice unit in Dalhart was closed last year because of understaffing, and that:
Regular readers know this topic has been a hobby horse of mine for some time. Though so far only the Dalhart unit has actually closed down beds (at a time when the state has decided, supposedly, to build three more prison units and a slew of new treatment beds), it sounds like other TDCJ facilities may not be far behind. Reported Ward:
staffing shortages in Texas prisons have reached dangerous levels after years of administrators transferring convicts and tweaking overtime pay and schedules to try to maintain proper security in the face of dwindling staff.
"The situation is serious. It's very scary right now," said William Cook, 54, who has been a correctional officer at the Polunsky Unit in East Texas for four years. "Things are fixing to get worse."
Longtime Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs a legislative committee that oversees prison operations, echoed the concern: "When we reach the point where we're shutting down beds, it's is no longer a problem. It would be accurate to label this a crisis.
"Because of this chronic shortage, we've had to lower our hiring standards. ... We're now taking 18-year-olds just a few months out of high school; we're hiring 70-plus-year-old guards and others who are physically not able to protect themselves or others."
Prison officials said that adequate security is being maintained at Texas' 112 lockups, which house 157,000 felons. But they acknowledged that staffing shortages are an increasing problem and that low pay is a chief complaint.
The starting base pay for correctional officers in Texas is about $23,000 a year. After eight years, it tops out at about $34,000.
Texas traditionally ranks low nationally in how much it pays its correctional officers. For example, among the 16 Southern states, it ranks 13th, according to prison system officials.
Imagine being one of three guards responsible for 500 prisoners in a dorm setting! That's flat out dangerous for everybody involved, even if TDCJ weren't putting 70 year olds, kids too young to drink, and 115 pound housewives in guard uniforms!
In November, after the Dalhart bunks were mothballed, the staffing ratio increased to 71 percent. But other prisons remained just as short of staff as Dalhart had been, records show.
The 581-bed Fort Stockton Unit, also in West Texas, had just 58 percent of its jobs filled, and the adjacent 1,374-bed Lynaugh Unit was at 65 percent.
The 2,450-bed Eastham Unit near Lovelady, in East Texas, was operating with just 65 percent of its jobs filled.
Ten other prisons were operating with 75 percent or less guard jobs filled.
In all, prison reports show, the system was at least 3,749 officers short at the end of November, a number that has steadily inched upward in recent years.
Statewide, the system has only 83 percent of the correctional officers it needs.
When enough guards are not available to properly staff prisons, Cook and other correctional officers say, rehabilitation and exercise programs can be curtailed.
Convicts can be confined to their cells almost continuously and, in increasing instances, have had to be served peanut butter sandwiches for several days because staffing was not sufficient to feed them in the chow hall.
At the Polunsky Unit, according to Cook, "we run the chow hall with one officer ... with 100 inmates. There's one officer and two locked doors between you and the outside, and if something happens, all you can do is get out of the way and hope (the inmates) don't find you."
Dorms are supposed to be supervised by five correctional officers, Cook said. But often "there are just three, on a building that contains 500 inmates."
My family on both my father and mother's side come from Dalhart, and my grandfather was county judge in Dallam County for a whopping 29 years. When they built the prison unit, it was touted by local boosters as the solution to the town's dwindling population and stagnant economy. But not long after the facility opened up, a giant industrial pig farm moved in nearby that directly competes for low-wage employees. ("Do you know what that smell is?" an uncle asked me once, as the foul stench of pig feces wafted through the center of town, "It's the smell of money.") So the economics of Dalhart's labor shortage aren't hard to understand: Working with hogs may not be pleasant, but if the pay is the same, who wouldn't choose that over spending 12-16 hour shifts with two other guards in a dorm with 500 prison inmates?
(UPDATE: My father emails to add, "Another major economic engine in the area which you may not be aware of is the heavy influx of new dairies which has occurred in the last 7 or 8 years, climaxed by the construction within the last few months of what is touted to be the largest cheese factory in America. It is estimated that the cheese factory by itself will ultimately require 30 dairies to supply its needs." That sure oughtta increase competition for prison workers, don't you think?)
Earlier this week I predicted a need for massive prison building and thousands of new guards to accommodate the rate of growth Texas has experienced in the last three decades, but offered this caveat:
In reality, I seriously doubt that our current growth rate can be maintained.Obviously, we've already reached that point. The state cannot staff current prisons, even as plans are made to construct three more. (We can thank Lt. Governor David Dewhurst for that boondoggle, the flaws of which must now be apparent.) Current incarceration trends are simply unsustainable, not just in the long-term, but right now, this month, as we speak.
Already, reality has reared its ugly head to impose limits on incarceration. Texas prisons today are around 4,000 guards short of minimum staffing, and the problem is only getting worse. Trustees routinely perform functions previously reserved for TDCJ employees. More state employees already work in corrections than any other area. Either significantly expanding their numbers or raising their pay high enough to attract more job applicants would raise the state's artificially low per-inmate cost by an enormous margin.
Bottom line: Too many people enter prison and too many low-level offenders stay there for too long a time. Not enough people are willing to take guard jobs at current pay, and raising pay substantially would cost an astronomical sum because there are so many employees involved.
An aside: Governor Perry's veto in 2005 of probation strengthening legislation aimed at preventing these problems directly spurred the current crisis. A very similar bill passed in 2007 and is now being implemented, but the two year lag allowed the overall prison population to expand beyond the system's capacity. Now more must be done.
A past campaign client of mine and former Texas House Corrections Committee Chair, retired state Rep. Ray Allen, is fond of saying that Texas must learn to lock up only those we're "afraid of," not people we're only "mad at."
At this point, Texas had better learn that lesson quickly.
Here's a list compiled by Ward of TDCJ prison units with the worst understaffing:
Texas prison staff shortages
Units with correctional officer staffing rates below 70 percent (more than a 30 percent vacancy rate)
Percentage of guard jobs filled, number vacant
Wallace Colorado City 64%, 74
Dalhart Dalhart 70%. 53
Connally Kenedy 67%, 175
Lynaugh Fort Stockton 65%, 72
Fort Stockton Fort Stockton 58%, 34
Coffield Tennessee Colony 62%, 277
Beto Tennessee Colony 60%, 60
Ferguson Midway 64%, 171
Eastham Lovelady 65%, 65
McConnell Beeville 70%, 159
Statewide 83% 3,749
Figures are as of Nov. 30, latest available. Percentages are rounded.
Source: Texas Department of Criminal Justice