Friday, August 03, 2012

TDCJ can't keep rural units adequately staffed

Faced with dwindling staff, TDCJ had to close several more dorms at a South Texas lockup. Quite a few other units also face significant staffing shortages. Reported Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman ("Staffing shortages idle more beds," Aug. 2):
Four additional dorms housing 320 convicts are being mothballed at a large maximum-security South Texas prison because of a continuing shortage of staff at the lockup, officials confirmed this afternoon.

The move marks the largest such temporary closure of portions of a state prison in well over a decade, even during previous staffing stages that forced dorms at several prisons to be mothballed for many months.

Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the convicts will be transferred from the Connally Unit in Kenedy, about 55 miles southeast of San Antonio, to other state prisons in coming weeks.

“The agency has sufficient capacity to temporarily idle these beds without causing a capacity issue,” Clark said. “We are doing this to help deal with staffing challenges at the unit.”
The agency doubled its recruitment bonus for understaffed units but that's not been enough. The same unit had to close several dorms in June because of staffing shortages.

Grits believes the state prison system has essentially maxxed out the political system's willingness to pay for it: The agency can't adequately staff rural units and the Legislature is unlikely to boost pay to make them competitive either with oil and gas or jobs in the city. Moreover, the Lege underfunded prison healthcare and the agency is spending well beyond budgeted amounts on that line item. (Private contractors have said they're unwilling to seek contracts to provide prison healthcare unless the Legislature budgets more for the service, and UTMB has threatened to stop providing services unless they're paid more. Last session the Legislature tried to mitigate the funding crisis by passing off more costs onto inmates' families for healthcare costs and phone calls and slashing vocational programming to the bone. Food spending has been reduced in recent years despite rising global food prices. Further cuts risk ending the agency up in federal court.

So unless the Legislature is willing to boost the agency's budget by perhaps $100 million or more -- and in the current budget situation the opposite seems more likely -- these trends aren't sustainable and they certainly can't achieve much more savings by the same means.

Several other TDCJ units are chroniclally understaffed. Here's a list of those where staffing shortages are most severe, according to a May 31st report from TDCJ. (Percentages represent the proportion of budgeted correctional officer slots filled at each unit.)
McConnell    59.89%
Connally       59.30%
Smith            61.85%
Dalhart         67.80%
Daniel           63.17%
Ware            65.03%
Wallace        70.19%
Grits realizes I sound like a broken record, but given the tight budget and increasing fiscal conservatism at the Lege, the best solution is to reduce the number of prisoners and close multiple units. Last session the Lege tried to nickel and dime the issue and cut all they reasonably could (indeed, some of the cuts were arguably unreasonable - particularly on healthcare), and the 2013 budget will be put up or shut up time.

Adjusting the statutes to reduce inmate populations actually wouldn't be that difficult to accomplish without harming public safety and could be achieved through modest changes in criminal statutes - notching down penalties for drug possession (but not dealing) by one penalty category, for example, or adjusting theft categories for inflation (the dollar amounts were set in 1993).

No one doubts the next Texas Legislature will be among the most conservative in recent history. But as it pertains to criminal justice, the question becomes, are these new entrants to the Lege "fiscal conservatives" or authoritarian ones? Prison is the ultimate manifestation of socialism - everyone treated equal, the state paying for everything - and there are many Big Government conservatives who embrace the concept completely uncritically. OTOH, there are plenty of small-government conservatives who may be more open to cutting costs and reducing incarceration levels during a period of declining crime - particularly for nonviolent offenders and those with low risks of recidivism. Which brand of conservatism will dominate the 83rd Texas Legislature on these subjects remains to be seen, but practical budgetary considerations at this historical juncture favor the small-government variety.

RELATED: Six Impossible Things: Do you believe in a conservative, rational and smaller corrections budget?


Anonymous said...

You did take into account the oil business is booming right now in South Texas and it is challenging for many business to keep sufficient staff now. I drove to the valley recently and there were oil related service trucks everywhere not to mention "NO VACANCY" signs everywhere. I understand there is no rental property to be had and some companies are leasing entire hotels for their increased personnel. Yet you give the lege the credit. Confounding variables you are not considering?

Anonymous said...

I know I sound like a broken record but. . . . .

Difficulty in staffing,logistical support, and a major increase in transportation costs,were all reasons why units should NOT be built, when this idea of building prisons all over Texas was presented to wardens and other experienced employees. Of course the political hacks ignored the comments.

Retired 2004

Anonymous said...

The Texas Board of Parole and Pardons are not doing their jobs. Inmates come up for review sometimes 4-5 times. These inmates have kept out of trouble for years and still do not make it. That is one of the biggest reason the prisons are overcroweded. The Board should do their jobs correctly!!!!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:48, I'm considering those variables - as you point out, I "did take into account the oil business is booming right now" - I just recognize that the real goal should be to make the system function and not merely to assign blame.

If units can't be adequately staffed because salaries aren't competitive, only the Lege can either a) increase salaries or b) decrease the number of units to reduce staffing pressure. It's a management question: I for one don't really care who's fault it is so much as how best to fix it.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I'm guessing they'll be fiscal conservatives until crime rates start to jump back up or until we have our own James Holmes who turns out to be a probationer or parolee. It seems these things have worked in cycles for decades. We get complacent on crime until the public gets upset and the we get tough on crime again. Happens every 20 years or so.

David E said...

I continue to believe that good time and work time should count for (almost) all inmates. I'm not including the James Holmes types in the system, but I believe that if an inmate shows over a 15-20 year period that he has awakened to personal responsibility, then that should be considered toward his parole possibility. The BPP makes the final decision, certainly, but at least his positive efforts should be considered.

Unknown said...

Let's look at another issue that will be connected with staffing at the prisons.

At meeting held for teachers in one of the San Antonio school districts last week the agenda of the Texas Legislature for the next session was discussed concerning issues related to education in the state. The teachers were told that high up on the "To Do" list of the legislators will be restructuring 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 the prison guards. It's early yet and nobody knows for sure how this will turn out and no specifics were given.

The mind reels at the bad outcomes possible secondary to this thinking. One thing is for sure if UTMB and TDCJ think it's hard to hire now and that turn over is high, just stand by because, you ain't seen nothing yet. One of the major reasons employees in both systems take and keep jobs is because of the retirement and health insurance benefits.

Speaking about UTMB's nursing staff these things come into play. Because the medical care for corrections is grossly under funded, UTMB at present is paying way under market value for nursing staff salaries AT THE FACILITY LEVEL, (this does not include the ridiculously over paid middle and upper management), add to that, no raises in four years, no contract after August 31st and now the reduction or loss of retirement benefits. Yeah well, people aren't exactly going to be braking down the doors to work in prison.

TDCJ can't compete in the market place at all in order to hire officers. Reducing or eliminating the ERS will be of no help at all.

Think of it. The next thing that will happen is Obamacare and the health insurance will be dropped and the employees will be forced to buy their insurance at the "State Exchange". Then there will be no benefits to go with the job at all.

In this session unless the Legislature comes to its senses the prison system is going to crash and burn and I am not sure that letting people out will save it. Not that, that isn't exactly the right thing to do.

J. Goodman said...

The oil industry has certainly bled off some of the potential employee market in south Texas. There are staffing difficulties all over the system.

But the comments and discussions in all of the State's communities (small where such matters are discussed by the citizens)reveals a lowered morale into which few people will enter even in financially difficult times.

The multiple problems that the prison/state faces is the terminal result of the policies that have been instituted since the Ruiz case was terminated. There was a prompt systematic bleeding of funds and diminishing quality of product.

Anonymous said...

Those who work in prison put up with a great deal of inconvenience and loss of privacy because, of the security necessary. Working in correctional medicine has never been a bed of roses for numerous reasons to long to list here. As compared to other medical environments it is certainly is not what one would call rewarding. Beside all that UTMB-CMC is no pleasure to work for. As evidence of this I offer the results of the "U-Count Survey" that UTMB conducts every year. The results for UTMB-CMC, (not UTMB), have a history of being very poor but, the last few years have set all land speed records for low scores. The reasons for this are also too long to list but, there is a disconnect between middle management and the staff at the facility level that has developed over the years that now has proved impossible to repair. Operational and disciplinary decisions, made by middle management, have a history of being very authoritarian, dictatorial and down right unfair. This has created a feeling among the staff at the facilities that their supervisors are completely uncaring and that they are being taken advantage of. The turn over rate for staff is very high because, recently hired staff find after a period of time they don't want to work for UTMB-CMC. Other staff who have been around for years before things got really bad, have time invested in the TRS system and want to hang in there until they have all there points for retirement. At present it is these few, (who haven't been RIF'd), that are backbone of the staffing at the units. This situation will not last forever as most of these employees will leave as soon as they have enough points to retire for all the reasons given above. In short if the TRS system is gutted, I believe those who are putting up with a poor UTMB-CMC middle management to gain retirement will also leave.

fedupwithangieslist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...


THAT WOULD BE GOOD NEWS AND SEND A CLEAR MESSAGE THAT THINGS BETTER CHANGE or whitmire et alias with perry as chief of staff will do their own babysitting.

When you get into a pig sty, you get your Sunday clothes all dirty. So, they need to clear up the hot and stinky pigsty if they want folks to work for them

Another way to put it:
"When you demean a human being we are ALL diminished"

DOC is demeaning for guards and inmates alike and therefore we are ALL diminished.

Anonymous said...

May be potentional employers are also scared of becomin the object of lawsuits... despite the promised immunity. Inthis spirit:

can you please follow up or start a discussion on this:

out of topic perhaps... forgive me..

Anonymous said...

May be potentional employees are also scared of becoming the object of lawsuits... despite the promised immunity. In this spirit:

can you please follow up or start a discussion on this:

out of topic perhaps... forgive me..

Anonymous said...

Grits, please keep repeating your broken record. Maybe someone (i.e. legislators) will listen in time to keep FEDS from stepping again. On the other hand maybe that is the solution to all of it.

Anonymous said...

Staffing is at such critically low levels the system is fragmenting even now. Further inaction by the legislature is untenable, and has gone on for so long that a combination of prisoner releases, salary increases, and wholesale repair of the criminal justice system will be required in the next biennium.

TDCJ is currently losing staff at a greater rate than they can be replaced.

Anonymous said...

I have been a correctional Officer for almost 27 years and can't wait till I am old enough to retire. It’s not because of the offenders it’s because of the staff that I have to work alongside. TDCJ cannot hire the quality staff for the pay that is offered and as a result we have to hire people that haven’t been caught yet. And this mentality has flourished for so long TDCJ is being run by the aforementioned people that have worked their way up the ladder.

sunray's wench said...

If we were talking about Walmart instead of TDCJ, and Walmart were having difficulty recruiting in a specific location, they would do one of two things:

1. Swallow the cost of raising pay to encourage new applicants if the store itself was making enough money

2. Close the store.

But then, I suspect Walmart would have done their research and not built a store where they didn;t think they could staff it in the first place.

TDCJ cannot sit on both sides of the fence. It is either a business that has to operate in the true market economy - sink or swim. Or it is a state-run agency that will need to vastly improve benefits and pay to new staff if maintaining those rural units is considered to still be a priority.

As for the comment above about inmates showing they can behave over 15-20 years; I agree with what you are saying completely, but I think people fail to comprehend just how long 20 years can be. Sentencing people to 20 years (and many many inmates are serving much longer than that) before they can even apply for parole serves no purpose other than removing them from the economic pool when that sentence if served in TDCJ. There is no rehab, no education beyond GED unless they can find someone to help pay for it, no incentive to be productive or take responsibility for themselves in a system that removes as much personal responsibility as possible in its attempts to dehumanise and intimidate. There can be only one reason for this: the people running the show do not want the inmates to leave TDCJ and if they do leave, they want to see them back as quickly as possible.

Their conciences can be no cleaner than the inmates they warehouse.

Someone has to look at the BPP and the rules surrounding eligibility for parole for ALL inmates, not just those who happen to enter TDCJ if the law changes. A chance at parole doesn't have to mean automatic parole, but there is no reason why inmates who have behaved themselves couldn't be considered earlier into their sentences regardless of what their conviction is.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous said...
I'm guessing they'll be fiscal conservatives until crime rates start to jump back up or until we have our own James Holmes who turns out to be a probationer or parolee. It seems these things have worked in cycles for decades. We get complacent on crime until the public gets upset and the we get tough on crime again. Happens every 20 years or so."

8/03/2012 04:37:00 PM

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I haven't heard that Holmes was on probation or parole, or had been in prison before. So, your attempt to justify your argument with that point is absolutely devoid of logic.

On the other hand, you may have a point. Most of the things like this in society swing from one extreme to the other, like a pendulum. We are now at one extreme - incarcerating a ridiculous number of people for ridiculous amounts of time. So, the pendulum will probably swing back. But, instead of maintaining an appropriate level, i.e. incarcerating for a long time the ones who need to be incarcerated for a long time while not locking people up for decades for petty stuff, we will likely go to the other extreme and, as you say, there will be public backlash about and eventually we'll be to the other extreme.

The place to stop this pendulum is in the middle, not at one of the extremes, which is where we currently are.

Anonymous said...

Even the Polunsky Unit (max security and home of death row) seems absurdly understaffed - doing legal visits there has become something of a joke - you have to allow up to an hour for the staff to bring the inmate out for a visit. Even clients that I was visiting acknowledged that the staff were not having an easy time because of under-staffing and poor management. Apparently a lot of middle ranking COs are taking out their frustrations on inmates and junior COs. Not a healthy situation for anyone ...