Saturday, November 24, 2012

TDCJ must choose between statist, Reaganite options on prison understaffing

Staffing woes at several isolated, rural Texas prisons leave legislators with three options: A) Increase pay to attract workers in areas where TDCJ competes with active oil fields and fracking operations for employees, B) close understaffed facilities and consolidate employees in fewer units to relieve understaffing, or C) do nothing and wait for violence or litigation to force state action after the fact where it could not be moved based on reason or foresight.

A recent news story portrayed understaffing at Texas prisons as having reached a critical juncture: According to the Texas Tribune's Maurice Chammah, "Leaders of the state’s prison employee union say that officials are leaving Texas prisons dangerously understaffed. On Wednesday, they renewed calls for better pay, noting that the holiday season is a particularly dangerous time in Texas prisons." The union wants "to shorten the amount of time it takes to get from minimum pay, $27,000, to maximum pay, $37,000, from eight to five years. 'We’re trying to get these new boots [newly-hired officers] a light at the end of the tunnel,' [AFSCME executive director Brian] Olsen said."

Notably, pay hikes for guards were not among the "exceptional items" requested by TDCJ in their biennial Legislative Appropriations Request. Still, that doesn't mean the Lege can ignore the problem.

Obviously, the union's preference would be to keep the same number of employees or increase their ranks while paying everybody more. Let's call that the "statist option," or Option A  The main problem: Increasing pay at 111 units statewide makes little sense when understaffing is isolated to 7-8 specific units. Most COs benefiting from the pay hike would not assist the state in staffing these few, problem facilities and boosting pay for everyone would be costly. Option B - reducing incarceration rates and closing prison units to consolidate understaffed guards in fewer facilities - harks back to Ronald Reagan's strategy as Governor of California to reduce state prison costs. Call Option B the "Reaganite option." Option C, of course, is simply what happens when the state fails to anticipate trends, muddling forward into this predictable mess without a plan until the vicissitudes of fate leave the state with no real choices at all. Let's call that the "Oops option."

Grits has written so frequently about this dynamic there's little need to iterate the point, but also there's little doubt these debates will re-emerge once the 83rd legislative session begins.


Frank G. said...

TDCJ was able to close the Central Unit and still have available bed space due in part to a slight increase in parole approval rates over the last two years. A 1% increase in parole and DMS (discretionary-mandatory supervision) rates equals approximately 1,000 additional releases. So, another slight increase in approval rates and continuation of the Madden/Whitmire reforms could help in solving this problem.

Anonymous said...

Working in a prison is a tough job to begin with and many people sign on as a necessary fiscal evil, hoping to move on later.

Many of the newer prison units located in the more remote areas were built for political and economic benefits to the communities where they are located and not for the States' correctional needs,so any outright closure will be fought. Setting differential pay intuitively makes sense, but will not solve the problem alone. TDCJ can build housing for the employees in these remote area and charge them next to nothing and allow travel reimbursement for travel to and from work for those who live further away and don't want to move. Sytem wide, Legislative reforms to the Penal Code, i.e. de-criminalizing certain offenses or re-thinking what crimes should continue to be a Felony are part of the overall solution for the TDCJ population to be reduced so that the ratio of CO's to prisoners is safe.

CutTheFat said...

Anonymous 1:11
You shore nuff know how to say that in a way that's downright purdy!
But we just call that sort o' shit good ol' pork fat.