The grand total for proposed raises - $453 million and change. And that's not the only proposed increase stemming from Texas' jam-packed, understaffed prison system:
Brad Livingston, the prison system's executive director, said the proposal would raise starting pay for correctional officers from $26,016 to $30,179 and the maximum salaries from $34,624 to $42,242. Livingston said the increase would cover staff from correctional officers through wardens.
For parole officers, starting pay would increase from $32,277 to $37,441, and the maximum salary would go from $36,363 to $43,636.
Saying the proposal "will fundamentally address the officer career ladder for the long haul," Livingston said the goal is to continue to reduce the agency's critically high vacancy rate and "reward our employees for their dedication to providing public safety."
Texas prisons have been short of guards for several years, so short that officials within the past year have had to close parts of some prisons. Without proper staffing, convicts have to be kept confined to their cells more than they should be, programs have to be suspended, and conditions inside prisons generally become more undesirable — for guards and convicts.
The shortage of correctional officers reached a crisis point 11 months ago, when the agency had 3,978 vacancies. Livingston said that through July, the shortage had been reduced to 3,040, thanks to a beefed-up recruitment program and incentive pay.
Board Chairman Oliver Bell predicted that the pay increase will help reduce the vacancy rate even more. It will help "retain our current staff, recruit new officers and overall would send a positive message to our employees that we value their dedication to protecting the safety of the citizens of Texas."
Although legislative leaders greeted the proposal warmly, they said it will have to be considered with all the other demands that will face state budget writers come January.
That amounts to nearly $700 million in new expenditures for the prison system, or a growth rate of 10.5% over the last budget. What's more, that assumes a de minimus expansion for treatment programs, but more will be needed to reverse long-term incarceration trends that made the prisons so full in the first place.
In addition to the raises, the agency's $6.6 billion, two-year legislative appropriation request also includes an additional $181.1 million for convict health care, $30 million to buy additional video surveillance and contraband screening gear and metal detectors to beef up security, $22 million to make a former Veterans Affairs hospital in Marlin usable for convict health care and more than $10 million to expand treatment programs.
The proposal includes no money for new prisons.
It's hard to tell whether even this large a pay hike will resolve TDCJ's 3,000 guard shortfall. Most prison units are in rural areas where the labor market remains limited, and no amount of pay changes the fact that Texas prisons are un-air conditioned in the summer and a distasteful work environment year round. But we already know Texas can't adequately staff prisons at current pay rates, so Livingston deserves kudos for proposing a radical solution.
One factor not mentioned in the press coverage: Last year the Legislature linked Youth Commission employees pay to guards at TDCJ to stop the drain of staff from that agency, so if TDCJers get this raise there will probably be an added expense from bringing TYC up to par.
There will be those who chafe at spending so much on prisoner health care, one suspects, at a time when a quarter or more Texans don't have health insurance. But considering the size of Texas' prison system, we'll probably still be underspending after the increase. If one day the feds step in and force the state to fully live up to its constitutional obligations on inmate healthcare, those costs could balloon very quickly like they have in California.
Texas has long enjoyed an artificially low overall cost per inmate compared to other states and these proposed increases are just beginning to address those historic deficiencies. It's not so much that base costs have increased, but Texas must also pay the piper for obligations the Legislature shortchanged for many years.
The other options, of course, for those who dislike the expense, would be to criminalize less stuff and incarcerate fewer people.