Four additional dorms housing 320 convicts are being mothballed at a large maximum-security South Texas prison because of a continuing shortage of staff at the lockup, officials confirmed this afternoon.The agency doubled its recruitment bonus for understaffed units but that's not been enough. The same unit had to close several dorms in June because of staffing shortages.
The move marks the largest such temporary closure of portions of a state prison in well over a decade, even during previous staffing stages that forced dorms at several prisons to be mothballed for many months.
Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the convicts will be transferred from the Connally Unit in Kenedy, about 55 miles southeast of San Antonio, to other state prisons in coming weeks.
“The agency has sufficient capacity to temporarily idle these beds without causing a capacity issue,” Clark said. “We are doing this to help deal with staffing challenges at the unit.”
Grits believes the state prison system has essentially maxxed out the political system's willingness to pay for it: The agency can't adequately staff rural units and the Legislature is unlikely to boost pay to make them competitive either with oil and gas or jobs in the city. Moreover, the Lege underfunded prison healthcare and the agency is spending well beyond budgeted amounts on that line item. (Private contractors have said they're unwilling to seek contracts to provide prison healthcare unless the Legislature budgets more for the service, and UTMB has threatened to stop providing services unless they're paid more. Last session the Legislature tried to mitigate the funding crisis by passing off more costs onto inmates' families for healthcare costs and phone calls and slashing vocational programming to the bone. Food spending has been reduced in recent years despite rising global food prices. Further cuts risk ending the agency up in federal court.
So unless the Legislature is willing to boost the agency's budget by perhaps $100 million or more -- and in the current budget situation the opposite seems more likely -- these trends aren't sustainable and they certainly can't achieve much more savings by the same means.
Several other TDCJ units are chroniclally understaffed. Here's a list of those where staffing shortages are most severe, according to a May 31st report from TDCJ. (Percentages represent the proportion of budgeted correctional officer slots filled at each unit.)
McConnell 59.89%Grits realizes I sound like a broken record, but given the tight budget and increasing fiscal conservatism at the Lege, the best solution is to reduce the number of prisoners and close multiple units. Last session the Lege tried to nickel and dime the issue and cut all they reasonably could (indeed, some of the cuts were arguably unreasonable - particularly on healthcare), and the 2013 budget will be put up or shut up time.
Adjusting the statutes to reduce inmate populations actually wouldn't be that difficult to accomplish without harming public safety and could be achieved through modest changes in criminal statutes - notching down penalties for drug possession (but not dealing) by one penalty category, for example, or adjusting theft categories for inflation (the dollar amounts were set in 1993).
No one doubts the next Texas Legislature will be among the most conservative in recent history. But as it pertains to criminal justice, the question becomes, are these new entrants to the Lege "fiscal conservatives" or authoritarian ones? Prison is the ultimate manifestation of socialism - everyone treated equal, the state paying for everything - and there are many Big Government conservatives who embrace the concept completely uncritically. OTOH, there are plenty of small-government conservatives who may be more open to cutting costs and reducing incarceration levels during a period of declining crime - particularly for nonviolent offenders and those with low risks of recidivism. Which brand of conservatism will dominate the 83rd Texas Legislature on these subjects remains to be seen, but practical budgetary considerations at this historical juncture favor the small-government variety.
RELATED: Six Impossible Things: Do you believe in a conservative, rational and smaller corrections budget?