That's the scenario described in the lede to a Houston Chronicle story yesterday ("State prison guard shortage 'critical,'" April 21) on Texas' chronic shortage of prison staff.
The Neal prison in Amarillo has so few guards working these days that Dorothy Barfoot, a correctional officer, often finds herself working alone in a dorm with 80 to 100 male felons. Sometimes she gets so scared her knees shake.
"Usually there should be two (correctional officers with me), at least," said the 13-year veteran.
But the prison can't find enough people to do the job of guarding inmates in Amarillo or anywhere else.
The Texas prison system is short more than 4,300 guards, with 17 percent of its full-time security positions unfilled. Nearly one in five of the state's 106 prisons operates with fewer than 75 percent of its correctional guards.
Far-flung Fort Stockton, the worst-staffed unit, operates with 59 percent of its correctional officers.
At a 59% staffing rate, Fort Stockton must be an awfully dangerous place; I wonder if there's a correlation between understaffed units and where most inmate violence or officer misconduct occurs? I've not seen such unit-by-unit data, but it seems likely.The Chronicle also described how recent pay hikes for new entrants have been poorly received by veteran officers like Barfoot who are substantially underpaid compared to their peers in other states. Giving a raise to newbies but not veterans "'created a big problem with the veterans. They're raising Cain. They've been the backbone of this agency,' said Brian Olsen, who heads the correctional officers union."
Texas' per-inmate costs are relatively low, but that's because the state underinvests in staffing, medical care and rehabilitation programs, not because of any particular efficiencies it enjoys. At the end of the day, that's penny wise and pound foolish. Saving money at the expense of prison guard safety makes everybody less safe.