Sunday, April 15, 2007

Why build more prisons when we can't staff the ones we've got?

The Houston Chronicle this morning finally picked up on what I've considered the biggest conundrum facing legislative proposals for new prison building - the state can't find enough guards to staff the units we have now. Reported the Chronicle ("Texas prison guard shortage raises alarm," April 15):
As leading lawmakers disagree on whether the state needs to build new prisons, Texas can't fully staff the lockups it has now.

Some warn that a chronic shortage of correctional officers poses a danger.

"There's a public safety issue with the shortage," said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, Senate Criminal Justice Committee chairman and Finance Committee member. "I'm told where you need two (correctional officers), you've got one, and sometimes you have none. It means that the public is at risk of a breakout. It means you endanger corrections officers, and you potentially endanger inmates."

Finally! (See also comments at The Back Gate.) Regular readers know I've been harping on this issue for months, both at TDCJ and at local jails which also cannot find enough guards to staff their facilities. Here are a few prior related Grits posts:
Texas has the highest guard vacancy rate of any large state prison system, and the shortfall is growing steadily. The Chronicle reports that agency-wide, TDJC's staff turnover rate has increased from 20-24% since 2002. The newspaper also provided a chart with key statistics documenting staff shortfalls and their effects, which I republish here:


Percent of correctional officer positions that are vacant in the four states with the largest number of inmates in state correctional facilities.

California: 9 percent.
Texas: 12 percent
Florida: 4 percent
New York: Less than 1 percent

Texas prison units with highest correctional officer vacancy rates, as of Feb. 28:

Dalhart: 37 percent
Smith: 33 percent
Coffield: 31 percent
Beto: 31 percent
Ferguson: 28 percent

Serious offender-on-staff assaults per 10,000 offenders:

2002: 3.7
2003: 2.9
2004: 3
2005: 3.4
2006: 4

Serious offender-on-offender assaults per 10,000 offenders:

2002: 56.5
2003: 64.9
2004: 64
2005: 65.4
2006: 65.5

Sources: Texas Department of Criminal Justice, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Florida Department of Corrections, New York State Department of Correctional Services


Anonymous said...

I wonder if there is any way of comparing the numbers of inmates given parole at the units with the highest levels of understaffing? And would it make any sense to pool the staff at units that are right next to each other, for example, Coffield and Michael, or Middleton and Robertson? I assume the job of CO is the same no matter what facility it's in?

That aside, the COs at Coffield that I've met are so obviously overworked, but are still polite (mostly) and helpful.

Anonymous said...

I left TDCJ in 1996 because it's about the worst place I have ever worked. It was not the inmates that bothered me, it was the TDCJ employees I had to work with.

If TDCJ wants more staff, they will have to clean up their personnel policies and put an end to the politics, back-stabbing, and harassment that are a part of daily life for the prison staff.

Unknown said...

Actually there are two easy solutions to this problem:
1] Pay higher wages to correctional staff or train them for free with stipends for subsistence while training like they do at US military academies.
2] Start a "guest worker" program for prison guards and import them from Mexico. Fast track those guards into citizenship. Five years as a prison guard gains you full citizenship. Texas has the luxury of living close to the border where many people seek employment in far nastier professions.

Anonymous said...

what would be wrong with parole pulling ahead some that were given set off because they had not been in long enough to adjust to the system ?? do we really want them there long enough to adjust??when they could be helping their families,raising their kids and being productive citizens,parole really needs to look at the reason some of these men/women at incarcerated,some are in for living in a town that is run by the good ol syndrome,EVERYBODY make's the wrong decision at some time or the other,EVERYBODY is just not caught at it,the state take's our children put's them in an adult situation at 17yr when they break the law,then turn right around and say "poor kids" that are locked in TYC that are the same age or older, NO CONSISTANCY here,thing are not always as they appear to be,there would be an abundance or space in TDCJ if parole would just reevaluate everyone under 25yrs old that are not repeat offenders instaed of giving set offs because they woke up and are having a bad hair day, sorry for rambling,but DAMN-I feel better

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I haven't seen that data by unit, Sunray, though I'll bet they could crunch it that way. The closest thing I've seen is stats by parole region which I posted here.

Also, I'm definitely okay with anon 10:29's suggestion, and think they should also include parole-eligible outside trustees to those with set offs, though obviously there's also crossover.

On JT's guest worker plan from Mexico, I think it's funny because previously I've heard right wingers make that argument as a joke when I've written about understaffing - this is another job Americans won't do, etc., but you're right, it would fix the problem in a heartbeat. The day a Mexican national shot an American citizen trying to escape, though, I'll bet you'd hear some backlash from the nativist crowd about it. Look at the outrage over the Border Patrol agents who shot an unarmed fleeing man and lied about it - you'd think prosecuting them was tantamount to treason to read some blogs' appraisal.

Thanks to all for good comments here.

stford4 said...

Since parole is so rare in Texas why not eliminate the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and save the public a lot of money? Use flat sentences for offenders, without the TDCJ gamesmanship and deceptions, then everyone will know just how many guards will be needed at each prison. Since no one knows when the rare and blessed event of parole will occur it is currently impossible to staff guards effectively. Why pay a lot of money for state bureaucrats that OBVIOUSLY do not have real jobs? End this scherade and save millions for the taxpayers!