Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Prison staff shortages and budget reality

The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal has a feature on a subject covered on Grits the other day titled, "Texas prison officials struggle with high turnover rate, staff shortage" (Aug. 6). The story by Aziza Musa opened:
Texas correctional officers guard one of the largest state inmate populations in the country but are plagued by a shortage of people willing to do the job.

It’s a thankless but critical function. The pay is low, the hours are long, the conditions are grueling and the danger is constant.

“If they say that Texas schoolteachers are underpaid, correctional officers don’t stand a chance,” said Keith Price, retired warden of the William P. Clements Unit in Amarillo. “Prisons and prisoners are out of sight and out of mind. Correctional officers get that same kind of treatment.”

The state’s prison system is offering a $3,000 signing bonus for new guards in hopes of filling the latest in a series of shortages. The prisons department this year had 2,800 vacancies in an authorized complement of 25,778 full- and part-time guards.

Those openings are driven by a turnover rate last fiscal year of nearly one in five guards, according to state records. More Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees voluntarily left the agency last year than workers in any other state department, state reports show.
The article offered up this description of the consequences of understaffing at rural, adult prison units:
Most guards spend 12-hour shifts in poorly heated or cooled prisons, [retired warden Keith Price] said.

Meanwhile, overtime costs soar. The state paid about $7.5 million for 285,000 overtime hours in fiscal year 2011, records show.

“Staffing plans have been so reduced that there’s just no fat left on the bone,” [AFSCME rep Marty] Turner said. “You have one person doing two people’s jobs.”

Guards might not get vacation, and prisoners might not get their recreational hour, he said.

And guards might not complete or thoroughly search cells as part of routine checks, Turner said.
Musa accurately speculated that the Texas Legislature is unlikely to offer significant pay hikes to prison guards next year, so as the economy continues to rebound this situation will only worsen. Indeed, given that the Legislature failed to fully fund prison healthcare this biennium, any extra funds will almost certainly go toward that line item before COs see another dime. Even if legislative leadership remains in denial on this question, practical reality has already begun to intervene: The state has already had to mothball beds at the Connally unit, and they're not the only facility that's dangerously short-staffed.

In the end, the only real solution besides increasing state spending on corrections is to change laws and policies to reduce the number of people incarcerated and close multiple units. We've already reached the point where cuts on paper during budget writing season are almost immediately trumped by the practical need to feed, house, guard, and provide healthcare for prisoners, while education and treatment programming have been slashed to the bone. TDCJ can't possibly cut its budget any further - or even operate under the budget constraints imposed last session - and still house the same number of people in the same number of units it does today.


Prison Doc said...

Glad the topic is getting publicity, but certainly no phrases in this article can give one optimism.

Anonymous said...

So they will give new hires a $3,000 bonus, but nothing to seasoned officers? They don't want to retain experience? They would rather pay a huge bonus to folks that likely won't stick around too much beyond their bonus payment requirement? Damn state is pretty freaking smart, hunh?

David E said...

I read the full article a few days ago and I believe it is right on target, especially the insights by former Warden Price. From all that I read it appears the next legislature will focus on public education and Medicaid. Where does that leave corrections? The article referenced here pretty much answers that question. This entire issue of criminal justice is sad and getting sadder by the day. I am not hopeful.

Kevin Stouwie said...

Perhaps someone ought to sit down and explain to judges and prosecutors that their typical approach to making sure the voters believe they are "tough on crime" (ridiculously long prison sentences) is compounding the problems of the prison system, especially for 3g offenses, where the Board of Pardons and Paroles cannot even consider someone for parole until they've served half of their sentence.

While we're at it, maybe it's time to do away with the huge range available to punish, i.e. 5-99 years. The prosecutors in counties like Williamson, Smith, Comal, Kerr, etc. think they are cool because they ask for 30,40,50 year sentences in many, many cases where 5 or 10 seems far more appropriate. Scary thing is, the judges and juries in those places go along with such absurd sentences, even in non-violent cases.

Just my .02

The Comedian said...

Let's face it, these are shit jobs that no one who has a viable alternative will do. Most COs who stay do so for the benefits and the retirement.

Meanwhile, our elected buffoons and their paymasters line their pockets with "privatization" money while denigrating state employees, except for themselves of course.

Phillip Baker said...

In a rare departure from my norm- as anybody who knows me will attest- I must disagree with Comedian. TDCJ and the prison systems in general are rife with abuse, injustice and all the rest of the litany that progressives like me drone on about. But having worked in prisons awhile myself (not as a guard), I remember many very fine, dedicated, professional men and women who worked that job because they really felt they could make a difference. And many did. It's amazing how fmuch simple acts of kindness can accomplish. Yes, there are a lot of bad apples, God knows. But we do true professionals a disservice if we do not give credit where it is due. Year after year they work in appalling conditions, doing their best to be good officers, to do more than just put in their time and actually try to redirect some of these men and women. These workers deserve and should get significant raises. Maybe there is a connection between low paid officers and the abuses we read about. Ya think?

Unknown said...

In the end paying a bonus to new officers will not make a difference in retention or the total number in work force. It's a Band Aid that won't stick. You get what you pay for. Officers need to be paid much better. Do that and raise the standards for hiring. Until then I am sick of hearing all the whining about the quality of the personnel and people who wonder why 10 officers have to be hired to get 6 to stay a year.

And for the record I agree there are fine officers out there putting themselves in harm's way and doing a job that helps make a difference. So, don't paint them all with the same brush. Trouble is there are not nearly enough of them.

While we are discussing salaries in the prison system, I'll do my broken record thing and just say again. MEDICAL IS UNDER FUNDED! They too are very under staffed. Four years without any kind of a pay raise and two recent reductions in force, is it any wonder they are not competitive hiring nurses and providers in the market place.

The Legislature had better fix this or some Federal Judge will fix it and you won't believe the price tag. How does everybody think California got to the point where they are paying over $40 a day an inmate for medical care?

Texas pays $7.75 down from a little over $10 when all this nonsense started.

I know that putting money in the prison system is not popular with the public. That is the biggest reason the Legislature is so inert. Not a career builder if you what to stay in politics. So yeah, they want to focus on education and Medicaid but, I wonder how popular they will be when a Federal Judge steps in... Oh hell, I know that answer. They'll all say, "Not my fault, I never wanted to spend money that way but, it's out of our hands". "Get mad at the Federal Government". Well, everybody should remember it was once in their hands and they did virtually nothing.

Anonymous said...

Been out of town so a little slow to post. But everyone on here is correct. The entire criminal justice system in Texas is broken. Yet no one in the Legislature will acknowledge or fix it. TYC is broken, TDCJ is underfunded and understaffed. Both agencies are a ticking time bomb waiting to explode and some political heads and administrator heads will roll. Only when the Feds get involved will things get better with a huge price tag