Thursday, August 23, 2012

No easy fixes for Texas prison staffing shortage besides deincarceration

Soon after I left on vacation, the Texas Tribune's Emily Foxhall authored a story quoting your correspondent and others on the subject of understaffing at rural prison units operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, accompanied by this informative map highlighting the units with the worst staffing problems:

Wrote Foxhall, "Reasons abound for why the job as a correctional officer is a tough one: Pay is low, most prisons are not fully air-conditioned and inmates are not always happy to be taking orders." My question: Who thinks any of that will change any time soon? Prison guard pay was bumped up slightly two sessions ago to help with recruitment, and recently recruiting bonuses for the most understaffed units were increased from $1,500 to $3,000. But that's not enough to draw people to work at units out in BFE. State Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire has basically said more prisons would be air conditioned over his dead body. And inmates will never be "happy to be taking orders." (In truth, few people are.)

Foxhall further cited "a survey by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, in partnership with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees," which said the employee grievace process is ineffective. "About three-fourths of those surveyed said they did not find the process to be 'fair and effective'," and Duane Stuart of The Backgate website told her "that staff are hesitant to report any corruption or wrongdoing to TDCJ." (Through Grits' own various back channels and informants, I hear the same thing all the time.) Many of the new security measures aimed at reducing the flow of contraband have fallen most heavily on TDCJ employees, contributing to poor morale, and those aren't going away.

The only lawmaker quoted in the story was Sen. Whitmire, who "agreed that many prisons were built in the wrong places and for the wrong reasons." But his suggested solution doesn't inspire confidence. "Now, he said, legislators need to focus on getting Texans to pay for improvement of conditions for the workers."

However, the 2013 session almost assuredly won't result in higher pay for correctional officers (COs) because of the budget crunch, and in fact Grits expects some lawmakers to seek to cut their benefits and/or further reduce their number. There are more COs at TDCJ than any other category of state employee and even a small pay hike would have big budget implications. And unless they're ordered to provide air conditioning by the federal courts, that problem isn't going away, either.

For a variety of reasons - mostly related to failures of budgetary leadership by the last legislature - the 83rd Texas legislative session's budget debates will be dominated by how to pay for education and healthcare, with the prison and probation systems scrapping for crumbs.  With all due respect to Sen. Whitmire, anybody who claims the Legislature will "pay for improvement of conditions" for prison workers is blowing smoke. One might as well suggest the problem will be resolved through prayer for divine intervention, the way Gov. Perry two years ago called for Texans to pray for rain instead of championing a viable water plan.

Grits was quoted at the end of Foxhall's article making essentially those points, and calling for seizing the opportunity to reduce the size of the prison system:
Scott Henson, a former reporter who writes the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast, said increased spending on prisons is unlikely.

“We’re at the complete end of that cycle that was begun 22 years ago. No one wants to foot the bill for how expensive it is,” Henson said.

Most agree that the temporary closures in Kenedy due to staffing shortages are not something to be celebrated, but Henson said that the state should continue efforts to reduce the prison population and close prisons in an intentional manner.

Even after the state closed its first prison last year, Henson said, Texas is operating more prisons than it should be.
See prior, related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

Texas Justice Dot Org has run a "snitch" message board for TDCJ's correctional officers since 2004. It is hated so much by the TDCJ administration, that every effort is made to identify employees who post. Those who ignorantly leave behind their email (which is discouraged for obvious reasons) have been met with warnings from their wardens. In fact, one warden recruited one of his security lieutenants to monitor the board when it was suspected some of his employees were posting negative things about the unit.

Only recently at the Backgate website, the owner/moderator was denied a promotion because of his message board. Of course, the administration is attempting to cover it up and now, an employment attorney has been retained for possible legal action against the agency.

Several legitimate complaints have been posted on TJDO's message board. One noteworthy positive from the board, has been an awareness of situations in which the agency has acted upon. So, we will continue to host the board to bring awareness to problems in TDCJ.


Prison Doc said...

I don't see how anyone can seriously argue with the facts stated in this post. It's a no-brainer that the lege is not going to drops millions more dollars on prison security and healthcare as long as the education ox is being gored and many other interest groups will be having pleading hands extended as well.

The easiest and quickest fix in my opinion is to release more and more nonviolet felons by letting them either "go flat" (ending their obligation to the state) or enroll them in community supervison, where the felons themselves pay all or most of the cost of their probation. There needs to be serious sentencing reform too, so these nonviolent guys could just do 90 to 180 days in the county lockup in instead of being sentenced to several years at the state's expense for simple possession, evading arrest, lying to a police officer, felon in possession of a firearm, assault on a policeman, plus a whole myriad of other "charge enhancements" that have arisen out of the ill-starred "law and order", "tuff on crime" era.

The Healthcare Budget would also get relief from lowering the number of people incarcerated, but our system needs to still reduce a lot of its inefficiencies, defensive medicine costs, and other poor practices that still survive from the more unnecessary interventions of the Ruiz decision. (Grits, I'm not saying Ruiz was bad--but any time the pendulum swings so far the other direction, there are bound to be some bad things that accompany the good.)

DEWEY said...

"Many of the new security measures aimed at reducing the flow of contraband have fallen most heavily on TDCJ employees..."
How do you (meaning the public) think all the contraband gets in? How else can cellphones get on Death Row (where contact visits are NOT allowed !)?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I don't disagree with that, Dewey, but that doesn't mean it's not more intrusive for staff. There are reasons for all these factors, but that doesn't mean they don't contribute to high turnover rates. TDCJ makes COs give up their Facebook passwords: Would you put up with such an invasive employer for $30K per year if you had any other options?

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, do you see the TDCJ utilizing the hundreds of thousands of returning vets to plug up these holes?

Militarizing the penal system all in the name of... wait, they already did that. Why else would they have Captains and LTs vs. supervisors and guards. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Let’s face it, at this point it has become painfully obvious to anyone who is interested and has paid attention that the prison system is failing. The funding for security and medical care is way short of what is necessary. This has long been detailed by Grits and the many people who have contributed all the well informed comments that have reinforced his position. We all know what the problem is and we are also aware that in this up coming legislative session nothing meaningful will be done to address this crisis. The only hope that seems to be left of even beginning to get a handle on this problem is to devise a plan for reducing the prison population and rethinking the long unnecessary sentences being given and reducing them. The reduction of the prison population could take place in a time span that would have some effect in the short term. However, addressing the sentencing laws, if it were actually done, would be so time consuming it would be of no short term use for this acute problem.

To make matters worse there are law suits in the wings that may well result in a Federal Judge mandating that A/C be installed in the State’s prisons. Also, it does not seem to be to widely known or talked about that Texas Legislators have on their “To Do List”, the restructuring of the TRS and ERS retirement systems. It is felt that public money should not be used to fund pensions for teachers and other state workers. The TRS system is the retirement system used by UTMB employees and the ERS system is used by TDCJ employees. At a time when both UTMB and TDCJ are experiencing great difficulty hiring and retaining personnel the legislature will be considering reducing the retirement benefits for those employees. One of the major reasons employees in both systems take and keep these under paid jobs is because of the retirement benefits.

What can be done about this? Short of a second coming, I hold out no hope of a workable solution in the short term. Putting money in the prison system is not popular with the public. That is the biggest reason the Legislature is so inert. Voting to fund the prison system is not a career builder if you what to stay in Texas politics. So yeah, they will focus on education and Medicaid and when the session goes in the history books virtually nothing will be done about the under funding of the prison system. What’s ironic is that in the end the funding be available when the Federal Judges mandate the state to correct the problems.