Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pay hike for guards needed to reduce contraband smuggling

At a Senate committee meeting today Texas legislators were told that understaffing and low guard pay were primary causes of the flood of contraband in Texas prisons, combined with a lack of phone access for inmates to keep in touch with their families. Improved phone access is already coming, but boosting pay will require legislative action. As Texas heads into the 81st legislative session, TDCJ officials have requested an eye-popping 20% pay hike for prison employees to stem its chronic understaffing problems.

In that context, I was interested to see PacoVilla's Corrections Blog recently lamenting possible pay cuts for California prison guards because of that state's budget crisis (coupled with looming federal court judgments). California guards are the highest paid in the nation, and interestingly, the main argument Paco offers in favor of high pay is reduced contraband smuggling by guards:
Notwithstanding the utter scorn the media has for California CPO's, even our harshest critics must acknowledge the effect high wages have had on staff involved contraband trafficking. Consider the FACT that Texas CO's rank 47th in the pay scale and HIGHEST in the illicit tobacco trade.

IN ANY CASE, whether pay enhances professionalism, security, retention rates or anything else, the handwriting is on the wall: CPO's have pretty much hit the ceiling. The days of wine and roses are long gone, friends.

Welcome the era of whine and poses.
If higher pay appreciably boosted professionalism and reduced smuggling among Golden State guards, that's the opposite trend from what we've seen in Texas. In fact, we learn from one of Paco's links that California's penalties are actually much more lenient toward contraband smugglers:
Prison employees can lose their jobs but there’s almost no chance of a criminal prosecution. Unlike states such as Texas — where providing tobacco to prisoners is a felony — the California statute considers it a misdemeanor and doesn’t lay out specific punishments.
That indicates to me that, contrary to the conversation at the Senate committee today, there's little relationship between harsher punishments for smuggling and reducing its frequency in prisons. Besides, Inspector General John Moriarty told the committee that Texas juries are unlikely to convict guards of smuggling offenses even when prosecutors decide to pursue charges.

As our friends at the Back Gate have frequently reported, at some Texas prison units the smuggling problem is epidemic, despite our guards facing much harsher criminal penalties than their counterparts on the West Coast. Perhaps, then, it's more effective to pay guards a decent salary on the front end and hire enough people to do the job. California prison guards make double what they're paid in Texas, though their cost of living is higher.

Better staffing appears to be a key part of the solution: there's a one guard per 5.28 inmate ratio in California versus a one guard per 7.03 inmate ratio in Texas. That plus higher pay, better screening for job applicants, and stricter oversight procedures (including pat downs for guards as they enter the gates) are all more effective ways to keep contraband out.

Twenty percent is a lot for TDCJ to ask for increasing prison staff pay all at once, but the best argument for giving them so big a boost is just what Paco said - it "enhances professionalism, security, [and] retention rates," plus it's probably the only way to dig TDCJ out of its staffing hole and fill those 3,000 empty guard slots.

RELATED: See initial MSM coverage of yesterday's hearing:


Anonymous said...

This is unlike the argument the teachers made to the lege for years, "give me more money and I'll do a better job." Correctional Officers have always been grossly underpaid for what they do (although one could make the argument that teachers sometimes work in equally dangerous conditions).

20% will be a tough nut to crack considering the state of the state and the economy. However, it would be nice to see the state address the situation in a serious way, a cure, not a bandaid.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmmm.....lesser of the two evils...Health concerns versus creating another level of contraband.

Makes me wonder if a better idea would've been "smoking" prisons staffed by smoking staff and "non-smoking" prisons staffed by non-smoking staff. At least TDC would not have created a another level, the highest level, of contraband. ;-)

Anonymous said...

The bribery thing has always caused problems. Some people get a job, where others can't, and then demand more money to do their original jobs. It runs rampant in government agencies. Many hold positions yet refuse, subsersivly, to do their jobs until they get a promotion or raise. If not, they accuse you as a racist! TYC and other gov't agencies use these extremes. They are the die-hard, "it's about me', truly poor spirited, that condemn others, in hopes that the state welfare system will contimue to support their lost cause. Have more kids...get more money...sucker society! Why should they do their jobs?

Anonymous said...

You know, if there is a budget crisis, why don;t the legislature volunteer to take a 20% cut to THEIR wages, the governor and hsi staff too. That would be a good showing of solidarity. Yeah, I am a dreamer, but what a nice gesture it would be.

Anonymous said...

Anyone have any idea what the salary of a Texas Senator is?

Anonymous said...

"Anyone have any idea what the salary of a Texas Senator is?"

$7,500 per year. They also get a per diem when the Lege is in session for expenses.

Anonymous said...

Out of control......if we pay substandard people good money for substandard work....we just ask for more hard times. STOP the give away to these folks that sit on their butts and draw the rest of us dry!!!If they can't support themselves and their large un-manned families, provide a one way ticket to their ......Why should we have to provide for their selfish - irresponsible lifestlyes...They don't know how many men fathered their children....and the fathers refuse to provide for the whatevers..?? THEY made their lives....why punish Aremica because they are idiots and maggots?? Stop the free patouts by taxpayers who WORK!

Anonymous said...

the problem isn't just the pay, but the recrutment criteria which right now are an absolute farce. Guards with criminal records working in the prison system, the training is appalling and the thug mentality is rampant. Really sad for the COs would actually are professionals. The black market has always existed in any prison system and that's not likely to change tomorrow. The culture of corrpution is so endemic in Texas, from the prison system to the courts. Nothing new here.

Anonymous said...

The state of Texas cannot or will not secure the border, they could not protect the governors mansion from burning, there was the TYC scandal and now this.

You think there is a need to change some faces in the governors office and the state legislature.

And state agency heads with DPS, TYC, TDCJ and the likes need to be held accountable on a daily basis or terminate their employment.

Granted better pay might attract better quality applicants, pay raises have nothing to do with the integrity or the ethics of a person. You either have it or you don't.

Accountability needs to flow right on down from management to the front line employees of these agencies.

Anonymous said...

I cannot agree more, however it is not the job of the state of Texas to secure the border with Mexico. That is a Federal issue, but as long as cheap labor continues to flow across allowing for industry to employ at lessor wages I doubt we will see a change anytime soon.

It isn't about stopping the flow for some small and medium sized businesses, they want to have cheap labor it keeps the Unions out. You get the government to pass legislation with teeth that harms businesses that employ illegals, then you will begin to see the flow slow to a trickle. Until then, the people will continue to come, and the lobby will continue to make money to stop laws.

Anonymous said...

The problems with the prison system can't be fixed. A pay raise for guards won't solve their greed. Exorbitant prices for inmate phone calls and inmate canteen assure the continued existence of contraband. Throwing more money into this failing system in order to solve its problems borders on insanity, and of course, it won't work.

Anonymous said...

I agree it's the fedreal governments responsibility to secure the border, but if they won't, who will?

I'm not waiting on the sheriff's office to show up before I stop someone from intruding into my house or taking my property.

Likewise, the state can't continue to wait on the feds to fix the border problem. It's been 7 years since September 11, 2001. How long do we have to wait?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

If the government can't keep cell phones off DEATH ROW, how do any of you people think they're remotely capable of sealing a 2,000-mile long border? It's ridiculous to even suggest.

Build a wall? Death row has walls, too.

It MIGHT be possible to reduce, but never eliminate, contraband smuggling in prisons by hiring more staff, paying them a living wage, initiating pat downs at the entrances, installing tens of thousands more cameras, and basically throwing a mountain of money at the problem. The notion that the same approach could ever be used on the border is just delusional silliness. Trying to scale up that approach would cost many times what we're paying for the Wall Street bailout, and it would still fail, just like the prisons failed to keep contraband away from the state's worst murderers in a much more secure setting.

Anonymous said...

Sorry your so riled up.

I don't propose a wall. I always thought that was wrong. Ronald Reagan must be turning over in his grave at the thought of building another wall.

Do you think it's possible to reduce, not eliminate entry's at the border?

What's your idea for border security?

Your ideas have merit for prison facility security but how do you propose to instill ethical behavior amongst staff? Do you think you either have it or you don't?

As a matter of fact, I don't think the government is capable of doing anything except giving me and you something to talk about!

Anonymous said...

Hey Grits,

Where do you think TDCJ is going to find 3000 guards? Better yet, where are they going to find 1000 guards?

We know the problems county jails have with employee retention and recruiting. And they pay more than a TDCJ entry level guard makes.

We know that one of the issues when proposing to build bigger county jails is where are they going to find people to staff it.

There was a story in Saturday's Longview News Journal about the unemployment rate rising in Gregg County. Sunday's papers had a rather ironic headline about the local oil industry in Gregg County not being able to find workers to fill jobs. And these jobs pay a lot more than county or state corrections work.

The story went on to say the majority of applicants cannot pass drug screens or have multiple DWI convictions and can't drive a vehicle.

So again, where are these employees going to come from to staff TDCJ?

Anonymous said...

like my dad says theres gonna be a revolution in the future.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Not riled up, 9:49, just not tolerating muddled thinking.

Or actually, somebody else got me riled up this week and maybe I'm just grumpy and improperly taking it out on others. If so, I apologize.

As for the border, I've written a lot about the subject. The enforcement only approach is not sustainable. Basically legal immigration must expand and most new resources should go to investigate corruption, not just hiring more Border Patrol officers (read: bribe fodder).

That's similar to the notion that the best way to reduce illegal cell phones in prison is to give prisoners phone access for legitimate uses and target corrupt guards. My approach would be essentially similar in both instances.

To 10:02 - the only way they find enough guards is if the increased pay (combined with a slumping economy) draws more workers. I agree the lack of guards is a big problem, and if TDCJ succeeds it will probably be by hiring staff from the jails and shifting the same problems downstream. That said, increasing pay for rookies this spring actually, demonstrably improved staffing, so I'm not going to argue that it's impossible to hire more people. But it will certainly be difficult.

The other solution, of course, is to reduce the prison population so the staffing levels become more reasonable.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that Moriarty would conclude that juries are unlikely to convict guards. How would he know since there are few prosecutions but plenty of offenders? I'd like to see his evidence. If it's anecdotal, it's not enough. The law simply isn't enforced like it should be.

A lot of complaints I receive at Texas Justice Dot Org is that when an officer is caught bringing in tobacco, for example, they are fired but very rarely prosecuted. The reluctance to do so is that the county DA's simply don't want to waste resources. The legislature needs to revisit the issue of special prosecution units and provide them the needed resources to do their jobs.


Anonymous said...

Education is needed for guards to reduce contraband smuggling. What most of them don't know, is that inmate they're doing the favor for, will use it to blackmail the guard. I was fortunate to have a supervisor that handed me the book 'The Games Criminals Play' the first week.

Anonymous said...


As a former TDCJ-ID corrections officer I actually agree with you. I have posted on your blog in before in staunch opposition to your opinions but in this I agree with you. I think that higher pay can and usually does assist you in finding a greater applicant pool. But without some sort of background check you are just guessing at what applicants you are picking out of the pool.

However, what is extremely lacking in regards to the correctional forces working for the state of Texas is background checks. Just because you have a clear warrant check and no felonies or high grade misdemeanors does not mean that you are fit to wear the state seal on your chest or a state uniform on your body.

What really needs to happen is what is happening in TDPS, Texas Parks and Wildlife, TABC, TDCJ OIG, TYC OIG, and most large police departments. We need to do actual background checks on correctional officer applicants.

I am a state peace officer. Before I was hired in my current position a background investigator checked with my neighbors, coworkers, employers, landlords, my spouse, my relatives (including my parents and grandparents), et cetera. My credit history was checked for repeated patterns of bad debt, my MySpace was checked for content, and my criminal history was checked as well of course.

This is what is done in state law enforcement agencies. This is what state prisons need to do as well. I also believe that correctional officers should have the option of becoming peace officers while remaining corrections officers like in California.

So pay the correctional officers salaries in comparison to TDPS salary schedule C and then DO REAL BACKGROUND CHECKS!!!!

I know this will never happen because it is expensive in the short run but I believe the money that it will save in litigation and possibly placed under the oversight of federal courts (again!) will save the state more money than it would lose.

Just a thought. I personally think that most Texans just forget people when they are locked up so they do not really worry if the watchers are actually the ones who need watching....

Anonymous said...

A lot of complaints I receive at Texas Justice Dot Org is that when an officer is caught bringing in tobacco, for example, they are fired but very rarely prosecuted. The reluctance to do so is that the county DA's simply don't want to waste resources. The legislature needs to revisit the issue of special prosecution units and provide them the needed resources to do their jobs.

The Special Prison Prosecution Unit prosecutes employees as well as offenders. However, employees generally don't have a criminal background, so they are eligible for probation and usually cut deals. The offenders, on the other hand, have convictions to spare and face severe criminal penalties.

Anonymous said...

Contraband will occur no matter how much money the guards are paid. I do not believe that they do it just because they do not make enough money.

Anonymous said...

Contraband will Occur no matter what, but we can curb the contraband hiring better officers. The pool for hiring is incredibly shallow when it comes to TDCJ. I had a sergeant in the academy who could not pronounce Narcotic (he kept saying Narcoleptic). We have ranking officers who are dirty and in gangs, and everything seems to get covered up.

There was an officer at a unit who worked the back gate and he was bringing in contraband. He was allowed to retire... Did I mention he got his lateral promotion after he was convicted of stealing from the state of Texas?

Death Row has the sorriest of standards, I know an officer who got moved to another unit by the warden because they had problems with the ranking officers not expecting her to fallow proceedure and getting mad at her because she went all the way up the chain of command.
I even saw Officers not strip offenders out and one even place handcuffs IN AN OFFENDERS HANDS instead of handcuffing the offender. He had been working for the state for 12 years.
This is a serious problem, it needs to be addressed. People need to better training. Officers need a pay increase just to make the hiring pool a little deeper and so the hiring standards can be increased.
It seems to be getting worse before it gets any better.