The Texas prison system is nearly 4,000 guards understaffed statewide, and federal prisons, local jails and immigration detention facilities all have similar problems. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice already had to close a wing at one unit (in Dalhart) and reorganize another because they can't hire enough staff.
Now Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman reports on another prison wing closing in Fort Stockton for the same reason ("State closes part of W. Texas prison because of guard shortage," June 5):
Meanwhile, Fort Bend County finds itself in a familiar position. Pols there convinced voters to approve a jail expansion, but county commissioners don't provide adequate funds to staff the ones they've got. Reported the Fort Bend Herald ("Jobs? County needs jailers," June 4), "No less than 110 people will be needed to staff the new jail, and the sheriff's office is already short 48 employees, said Sheriff Milton Wright." In order to solve the understaffing crisis, Fort Bend County plans to use uncertified jailers, the Herald reports:
Amid warnings that Texas' chronic shortage of prison guards is compromising security and public safety, officials said Wednesday that they are closing part of a remote West Texas prison because they don't have enough guards to properly staff it.
It was the third such move in recent months and signals that the guard shortage is not improving significantly, despite recent pay incentives for new hires that have reduced the guard vacancy rate slightly.
"It's the greatest challenge we currently face," Brad Livingston, executive director of the Department of Criminal Justice, told a joint Senate-House hearing Wednesday.
At the hearing, prison officials said they are closing a 334-bed wing of the 1,375-bed Lynaugh Unit in Fort Stockton that has been operating nearly 40 percent short of staff.
Testimony during the hearing indicated that large amounts of contraband — cell phones, illegal drugs and tobacco — are being brought into state prisons by guards who are being bribed by convicts. A cell phone can bring $400.
"For seasoned correctional officers who take home just $1,900 a month, who are being overworked in an increasingly dangerous environment and having trouble making ends meet, the temptation is great," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. "We don't have enough correctional officers to properly search the staff coming on to the units and, if we did, I'm told we might lose as much as 10 percent of our staffing."
The problem runs much deeper, he said, because the agency is hiring guards with questionable qualifications.
"We'll take almost anyone who signs up," he said.
Add to that the remote location of many state prisons, the lack of housing and the low pay, "and you see the dangerous situation we're in," said Whitmire, who has led the oversight committee for well over a decade. "The lack of staff means more inmates are locked in their cells more often, without programs, without recreation, without treatment."
In Texas, individuals must be 21 years old to receive peace officer certification, and therefore work patrol and supervisory law enforcement jobs. However, Wright said not all jailers need to be state certified, and he said the prospect of being a civilian jailer could have allure for young individuals in the community.The Sheriff has to downplay the dangers, I'm sure, to justify the low pay he's offering. But shortchanging money for jail staff and training is a penny wise, pound foolish decision that brings with it many obvious downsides.
“But they've got to have a mature personality. They can work here in the jail and get into police academy later. We're going to really be going after 18-year-olds in the community,” he said. ...
Wright said he believes the department will meet its hiring goals but said his office will likely face incorrect assumptions about the job of jailer among potential recruits.
“It's still perceived as being a dangerous occupation, but it's really not,” he said.
And anyway, don't you want actual adults working in the jail, somebody with a few more years under their belt? Hiring 18 year olds who've not received state-required certification might be a short-term crisis-management solution, but it seems like an ill-fated plan for staffing an entire new jail facility!