Thursday, January 10, 2008

Rubber, Meet Road: Guard shortages cause closure of wing at TDCJ unit in Dalhart

Rubber, meet road.

Texas' prison overcrowding crisis has just entered a new and dangerous phase: The bill has finally come due for years of bipartisan political opportunism and willful denial. We've reached the pivotal "crossroads" predicted by the Texas Sunset Commission, and although the prison system, the Governor and the Legislature were amply warned of the problem, state government still seems caught unawares.

In an excellent story today from the Austin Statesman ("Guard shortage forces closure of prison wing in West Texas," Jan. 10), the intrepid Mike Ward reports that a 300-bed wing of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice unit in Dalhart was closed last year because of understaffing, and that:

staffing shortages in Texas prisons have reached dangerous levels after years of administrators transferring convicts and tweaking overtime pay and schedules to try to maintain proper security in the face of dwindling staff.

"The situation is serious. It's very scary right now," said William Cook, 54, who has been a correctional officer at the Polunsky Unit in East Texas for four years. "Things are fixing to get worse."

Longtime Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs a legislative committee that oversees prison operations, echoed the concern: "When we reach the point where we're shutting down beds, it's is no longer a problem. It would be accurate to label this a crisis.

"Because of this chronic shortage, we've had to lower our hiring standards. ... We're now taking 18-year-olds just a few months out of high school; we're hiring 70-plus-year-old guards and others who are physically not able to protect themselves or others."

Prison officials said that adequate security is being maintained at Texas' 112 lockups, which house 157,000 felons. But they acknowledged that staffing shortages are an increasing problem and that low pay is a chief complaint.

The starting base pay for correctional officers in Texas is about $23,000 a year. After eight years, it tops out at about $34,000.

Texas traditionally ranks low nationally in how much it pays its correctional officers. For example, among the 16 Southern states, it ranks 13th, according to prison system officials.

Regular readers know this topic has been a hobby horse of mine for some time. Though so far only the Dalhart unit has actually closed down beds (at a time when the state has decided, supposedly, to build three more prison units and a slew of new treatment beds), it sounds like other TDCJ facilities may not be far behind. Reported Ward:

In November, after the Dalhart bunks were mothballed, the staffing ratio increased to 71 percent. But other prisons remained just as short of staff as Dalhart had been, records show.

The 581-bed Fort Stockton Unit, also in West Texas, had just 58 percent of its jobs filled, and the adjacent 1,374-bed Lynaugh Unit was at 65 percent.

The 2,450-bed Eastham Unit near Lovelady, in East Texas, was operating with just 65 percent of its jobs filled.

Ten other prisons were operating with 75 percent or less guard jobs filled.

In all, prison reports show, the system was at least 3,749 officers short at the end of November, a number that has steadily inched upward in recent years.

Statewide, the system has only 83 percent of the correctional officers it needs.

When enough guards are not available to properly staff prisons, Cook and other correctional officers say, rehabilitation and exercise programs can be curtailed.

Convicts can be confined to their cells almost continuously and, in increasing instances, have had to be served peanut butter sandwiches for several days because staffing was not sufficient to feed them in the chow hall.

At the Polunsky Unit, according to Cook, "we run the chow hall with one officer ... with 100 inmates. There's one officer and two locked doors between you and the outside, and if something happens, all you can do is get out of the way and hope (the inmates) don't find you."

Dorms are supposed to be supervised by five correctional officers, Cook said. But often "there are just three, on a building that contains 500 inmates."

Imagine being one of three guards responsible for 500 prisoners in a dorm setting! That's flat out dangerous for everybody involved, even if TDCJ weren't putting 70 year olds, kids too young to drink, and 115 pound housewives in guard uniforms!

My family on both my father and mother's side come from Dalhart, and my grandfather was county judge in Dallam County for a whopping 29 years. When they built the prison unit, it was touted by local boosters as the solution to the town's dwindling population and stagnant economy. But not long after the facility opened up, a giant industrial pig farm moved in nearby that directly competes for low-wage employees. ("Do you know what that smell is?" an uncle asked me once, as the foul stench of pig feces wafted through the center of town, "It's the smell of money.") So the economics of Dalhart's labor shortage aren't hard to understand: Working with hogs may not be pleasant, but if the pay is the same, who wouldn't choose that over spending 12-16 hour shifts with two other guards in a dorm with 500 prison inmates?

(UPDATE: My father emails to add, "Another major economic engine in the area which you may not be aware of is the heavy influx of new dairies which has occurred in the last 7 or 8 years, climaxed by the construction within the last few months of what is touted to be the largest cheese factory in America. It is estimated that the cheese factory by itself will ultimately require 30 dairies to supply its needs." That sure oughtta increase competition for prison workers, don't you think?)

Earlier this week I predicted a need for massive prison building and thousands of new guards to accommodate the rate of growth Texas has experienced in the last three decades, but offered this caveat:
In reality, I seriously doubt that our current growth rate can be maintained.

Already, reality has reared its ugly head to impose limits on incarceration. Texas prisons today are around 4,000 guards short of minimum staffing, and the problem is only getting worse. Trustees routinely perform functions previously reserved for TDCJ employees. More state employees already work in corrections than any other area. Either significantly expanding their numbers or raising their pay high enough to attract more job applicants would raise the state's artificially low per-inmate cost by an enormous margin.
Obviously, we've already reached that point. The state cannot staff current prisons, even as plans are made to construct three more. (We can thank Lt. Governor David Dewhurst for that boondoggle, the flaws of which must now be apparent.) Current incarceration trends are simply unsustainable, not just in the long-term, but right now, this month, as we speak.

Bottom line: Too many people enter prison and too many low-level offenders stay there for too long a time. Not enough people are willing to take guard jobs at current pay, and raising pay substantially would cost an astronomical sum because there are so many employees involved.

An aside: Governor Perry's veto in 2005 of probation strengthening legislation aimed at preventing these problems directly spurred the current crisis. A very similar bill passed in 2007 and is now being implemented, but the two year lag allowed the overall prison population to expand beyond the system's capacity. Now more must be done.

A past campaign client of mine and former Texas House Corrections Committee Chair, retired state Rep. Ray Allen, is fond of saying that Texas must learn to lock up only those we're "afraid of," not people we're only "mad at."

At this point, Texas had better learn that lesson quickly.

Here's a list compiled by Ward of TDCJ prison units with the worst understaffing:
Texas prison staff shortages
Units with correctional officer staffing rates below 70 percent (more than a 30 percent vacancy rate)

Percentage of guard jobs filled, number vacant

Wallace Colorado City 64%, 74
Dalhart Dalhart 70%. 53
Connally Kenedy 67%, 175
Lynaugh Fort Stockton 65%, 72
Fort Stockton Fort Stockton 58%, 34
Coffield Tennessee Colony 62%, 277
Beto Tennessee Colony 60%, 60
Ferguson Midway 64%, 171
Eastham Lovelady 65%, 65
McConnell Beeville 70%, 159

Statewide 83% 3,749

Figures are as of Nov. 30, latest available. Percentages are rounded.
Source: Texas Department of Criminal Justice


Anonymous said...

The Board of Pardons and Paroles policies also contribute to over crowding.

If they could just follow their own guidelines for granting parole, it would reduce the overall population and need for CO's. Part of the problem is also Prosecutors seeking longer and longer sentences.

There certainly is plenty of blame to go around! The only hope is that the Legislature and Governor will see the light in 2009. Meanwhile, more riots, more peanut butter sandwiches, more danger for CO's and less societal good!


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Agreed on the BPP. As for "more peanut butter sandwiches," at least it's not VitaPro! :-/

Anonymous said...

If the powers that be treat the guards in TDCJ anything near like they have been treating those in TYC, no wonder they have a shorteage. The scheduling allows for very poor family time and crappy pay on top of that, who would won't to work in those conditions. You go to work, get to be treated like you are the inmate. Perhaps TDCJ needs a conservator like the new one TYC just got. He seems to really have a grasp on things and is in touch with reality. Maybe then, staffing would improve when people can be treated with dignity and respect.

Anonymous said...

There are thousands who have been paroled, why not release them now and free up some of the beds? That would make too much sense! Why keep those who made parole, have a stable home to go to, a job waiting for them and a church family also ready to help and love them? There are at least thousands like this who are still in prison simply because the fulfill a job that needs to be done.

Start at the top and clean house, with the head person, Rissie Ownes! Then clean out all the Wardens who don't come to work and just let their units run themselves. There are many answers and they all origniate in Rissie Ownes office. She is still not following the BPP rules that she agreed to and she needs to go and join Ed in whatever he is doing.

She is the root of most of the problems then hire all members of the BPP and therefore they can be removed, stop letting the Governor appoint the top man, we all know what a mess he has made.

This would be a God send to many families who have loved ones who have been paroled but are being kept to finish jobs instead of letting them come home to their families and start their lives again. Does anyone agree with this?

Anonymous said...

I'm told that Beto Unit has closed a section as well. Did Rissie Owens ever get the list of questions we wanted her to answer?

Anonymous said...

It amazes me that those in Austin could not know that the TDCJ and TYC are both short of guards. Because it has been on the web and the papers for a while. Just a thought but you might want to give your employees a raise. Because you can make just as much for the state standing on the road side holding a sign. And the second one does not require defending yourself from inmates and juveniles.To all those out there who do not vote this would be your year to try and change some people out in Austin.

Anonymous said...

The official estimate of staffing in T.D.C.J.I.D. is high, in reality the staffing numbers are much lower. The Coffield unit in east Texas is staffed at below 50%, the official number is much higher, and no matter what it is called officially, Coffield is on mandatory overtime. If the state prison officials can't lie to the employees and public, they can't say anything. Texas public and prison employees are in grave danger, not so much from the inmates, but from state officials and politicians that have created this situation. and they should be healed accountable.

Anonymous said...

Go figure. Last year I put together a very detailed Parole Packet for my nephew that included numerous letters and community resources as well as family members that are willing to "supervise" him on a daily basis, give him a job, named his home church, provide transportation, NA classes, etc. etc. etc--he was not approved for parole. He is in on a "drug" charge. While that is not excusable, it's weird to me that the prison is overcrowded yet they won't even parole those with confirmed support systems that have not killed, raped, tortured or did worse to a victim--oh well, it will only get worse--just like TYC.

Anonymous said...

The staffing numbers are flawed. If you investigate TDCJ staffing numbers, you will find that they are cooking the books and the officer shortage is worse than the numbers TDCJ is releasing. TDCJ is including officers out on FMLA, staff who have resigned, or retired who are burning off time. Even though the staff are not there, they still count them, because they are on payroll.

Instead of issuing staff a lump sum on their remaining comp time, overtime, vacation time, and holiday time balance, TDCJ is having these former employees burn off their time on a monthly basis.

Anonymous said...

guards injured as a result of criminally negligent manning shortfalls need to get smart and start suing TDCJ for the criminal negligence. this is the only thing that will solve the problem.

Anonymous said...

The salaries for TDCJ staff are more than sufficient for the mediocre work they do. The understaffing issues they face are because of the numbers of officers who give up and quit due to the corruption and unproffessional behavior of other co's,sgts.,lts., and others that never gets dealt with. Things like sleeping on the job instead of watching your coworkers back. Gossiping about personal business of officers in front of inmates and thereby putting that officer at risk,childish but risky things like locking your fellow officer in a wing of offenders and not letting them out.Placing brand new co's in duty positions when more qualified and better experienced ones are there at the ready. No matter where you look for relief it can't be found. No sorry ass Sgt. to help. Game playing Lt's are of no use. The Dalhart Unit is one big play fest and the officers who really care to do a good job give up and quit when they just can't feel any level of safe anymore. Some just transfer to another unit hoping the next one will have better work ethics. Intentional delayed response when I called for backup one morning was the final straw for me. When those supervisors want to teach you a lesson for trying to make things safer for yourself, your coworkers and offenders by reporting what is going on to the higher ups they do things like that to you. Hesitate when you call for backup! That will teach you who's boss around here... I truly hope things get better because the consequences will be horrific if they aren't

Anonymous said...

Can't help but wonder if some of the folks who can't find a job and are on public assistance know about this work and if they meet the very minimal qualifications. If you aren't willing to work at jobs available; maybe you shouldn't be compensated