Turnover among corrections officers has been on the rise statewide since 2006, according to department data. And in South Texas and other oil-rich regions in the state, where the energy boom has sparked an explosion of high-wage job growth, finding and keeping prison employees has become difficult.
The desperation to retain employees has prompted an unusual approach at one South Texas prison unit, which is offering dirt-cheap on-campus housing — as low as $25 a month — to make the cost of living in such nouveau riche communities manageable for its employees. And Department of Criminal Justice officials plan to offer similar options at prison units across the state in oil-rich regions.
Such recruiting tools are fast becoming a necessity. At the William G. McConnell Unit in Beeville, the turnover rate skyrocketed from 28 percent in 2006 to 62 percent in 2012, according to Department of Criminal Justice data. As turnover spiked, so did the rate of violent incidents in the prison, growing from about 12 incidents per 100 inmates in 2006 to more than 30 incidents per 100 inmates five years later. It’s a trend mirrored at other prison units across the state that are near shale deposits and the refineries that process the oil harvested from them. ...
It’s not only about the money; officers and prison condition experts say that the difficult working environment guards face contributes to their high turnover rate. That high turnover rate creates a domino effect that makes it even more difficult to retain prison staff: The remaining officers must put in longer hours, and the lower guard-to-inmate ratio means violence among offenders grows. ...
The Department of Criminal Justice currently has 3,304 corrections officer vacancies throughout its 109 prison units, even after the closure in 2013 of two privately run facilities. Statewide, the agency has left roughly 1,400 prison beds empty since 2012 because of staff shortages.State Sen. John Whitmire articulated what to me is the obvious conclusion, one endorsed by the prison guards' union: That Texas operates too many prisoners incarcerating too many people who don't need to be there.
While increased pay would help to retain some prison staff, Whitmire said, the long-term solution is one Texas is already working toward: significantly reducing the prison population, which currently stands at about 150,400.That's exactly correct. Grits strongly supports improving CO pay, but the hard reality is that the Republican-controlled Legislature will be looking to cut the budget, not increase pay for the state's largest single category of employees. In that light, the best way to boost guard compensation is to pay for it with savings from reduced incarceration, closing more prisons, perhaps eliminating more private prison contracts, and targeting units for closure where the staffing crisis is most severe. To get there will require sentencing reform.
Ensuring that prostitutes, the mentally ill, drug addicts and alcoholics find their way to community-based treatment programs instead of prisons, Whitmire said, would save taxpayer dollars and reduce the need for corrections officers.
“Compensation would help, but it’s a bigger picture than that,” he said.