Saturday, November 15, 2014

Understaffing at Texas prison units reaching crisis levels

Regular Grits readers won't be too surprised by the news, but the Texas Tribune published a story this week on the growing under-staffing crisis at rural Texas prisons, with Brandi Grissom making a cameo appearance on her old employer's site. The gist:
Turnover among corrections officers has been on the rise statewide since 2006, according to department data. And in South Texas and other oil-rich regions in the state, where the energy boom has sparked an explosion of high-wage job growth, finding and keeping prison employees has become difficult.

The desperation to retain employees has prompted an unusual approach at one South Texas prison unit, which is offering dirt-cheap on-campus housing — as low as $25 a month — to make the cost of living in such nouveau riche communities manageable for its employees. And Department of Criminal Justice officials plan to offer similar options at prison units across the state in oil-rich regions. 

Such recruiting tools are fast becoming a necessity. At the William G. McConnell Unit in Beeville, the turnover rate skyrocketed from 28 percent in 2006 to 62 percent in 2012, according to Department of Criminal Justice data. As turnover spiked, so did the rate of violent incidents in the prison, growing from about 12 incidents per 100 inmates in 2006 to more than 30 incidents per 100 inmates five years later. It’s a trend mirrored at other prison units across the state that are near shale deposits and the refineries that process the oil harvested from them. ...
It’s not only about the money; officers and prison condition experts say that the difficult working environment guards face contributes to their high turnover rate. That high turnover rate creates a domino effect that makes it even more difficult to retain prison staff: The remaining officers must put in longer hours, and the lower guard-to-inmate ratio means violence among offenders grows.  ...
The Department of Criminal Justice currently has 3,304 corrections officer vacancies throughout its 109 prison units, even after the closure in 2013 of two privately run facilities. Statewide, the agency has left roughly 1,400 prison beds empty since 2012 because of staff shortages.
State Sen. John Whitmire articulated what to me is the obvious conclusion, one endorsed by the prison guards' union: That Texas operates too many prisoners incarcerating too many people who don't need to be there.
While increased pay would help to retain some prison staff, Whitmire said, the long-term solution is one Texas is already working toward: significantly reducing the prison population, which currently stands at about 150,400.

Ensuring that prostitutes, the mentally ill, drug addicts and alcoholics find their way to community-based treatment programs instead of prisons, Whitmire said, would save taxpayer dollars and reduce the need for corrections officers.

“Compensation would help, but it’s a bigger picture than that,” he said.
That's exactly correct. Grits strongly supports improving CO pay, but the hard reality is that the Republican-controlled Legislature will be looking to cut the budget, not increase pay for the state's largest single category of employees. In that light, the best way to boost guard compensation is to pay for it with savings from reduced incarceration, closing more prisons, perhaps eliminating more private prison contracts, and targeting units for closure where the staffing crisis is most severe. To get there will require sentencing reform.


Anonymous said...

If texans want to be tough on crime, than maybe we should see if they want to pay for it with a state income tax. California learned the hard way what being tough on crime cost. Making people wards of the state is not always the best solution for ridding big government. Texas continues to lead the nation in mass incarceration. Texas needs to stop criminalizing social issues and start making better use of their limited state resources.

Anonymous said...

Reduce the prison population? Are you serious? If that is the solution, if you let the alcoholics,and druggies , etc, out, their spots will be filled up quickly...this is NOT a solution, It's robbing Peter to pay Paul. And it won't work. This world is getting crazier every day and crime rates keep rising. What do you think this group of chemically dependent people are going to do when you set them free? 90 % will go right back to drinking and drugging and all the crimes they have to commit to support that habit. PAY YOUR OFFICERS A WAGE THEY CAN LIVE ON. THEN YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO KEEP THEM. ALSO,. Truth is...let's have the good Senator come to work as a CO,for two months, and make him survive on CO pay while he supports a family. He won't make it either, he'll make a bee-line to the food stamp office so maybe he can afford hamburger meat once a week. OR, Plan B, head to the oil field. DO THE REAL MATH HERE. WE NEED MORE MONEY TO HIRE QUALITY OFFICERS.

sunray's wench said...

Not just sentencing reform, but tell the BPP to review cases sensibly and stop making up excuses to keep older inmates in prison.

Anonymous said...

This is for the person that wants more pay and thinks crime rates are rising.

I am a TDCJ employee also and I feel its folks like you that prevent us from getting a substantial raise. Your using facts that do not exist discredit real solutions and justify a pay increase.

Facts: The U.S. crime rate has fallen by almost 50% over the last 25 years according to the FBI Annual crime report. This maybe because the U.S. incarceration rate more than doubled in the early 1990's. All states went through a mass expansion phase then. Now we are paying the price, literally, for choices made then. State budgets can not support such massive prison populations. There is no money in the budget to pass substantial raises out to the huge amount of employees that we have.

Anonymous said...

This is a continuation of the post that ends "huge amount of employees we have."

Do not get me wrong, I would like a pay raise. But that is just one of the factors in a much bigger solution. Increased pay has never worked as a long term solution for employee retention, in any business model. It can help attract new employees however. So yes let's increase pay a bit but where do we find the money? The public will never support a tax increase for such a raise. So shrink the prison population, decrease the number of employees and use the budget surplus to pay you staff better. There are many more things the state needs to address along the way also. Like, how is it equitable to pay staff in west Texas the same as staff in west Texas but offer housing to those in the eastern part of the state. If housing is going to be offered, it needed to be state wide. No one complains because the State will just take the existing housing away. I say compensate those that work on units without housing and those that choose not to live in state housing.

How about work load? Very few off us do a lot of physical labor. The guys that stock shelves at Wal-Mart physically exert more than we do. But we have a job that I'd based on observing people, not physical exertion. On top of that we continually get more added to our plate and generally have less staff to help out. When is the last time you were told "we have to do this now but we are not requiring you to do this anymore"? I can answer that, never. You have always been told "we have to do this now and all the other stuff you did before". Just one more thing that needs to be addressed.

This list goes on but this is not the platform for it. The proper place to is to your state senators and representatives. And vote. We vote less than another sector of public employee. If the state government has no fear we will vote them out of office then they will not support us. I read the budget request every two years that comes from the TDCJ administrators and the request a raise for us each time. It's the people we put in office that deny the raise. Sorry about that rant, go vote and make change happen.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

RE: "This world is getting crazier every day and crime rates keep rising."

@1:08, I can't tell if you're profoundly ignorant or just lying for some ill-considered ulterior motive. But your assumptions are empirically, factually false. In fact, states that reduced incarceration most saw even larger crime reductions than the massive ones witnessed in Texas.

The comments following yours from a guard are right on the money.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the typo's in the above statements. I sent it from my phone not a computer. It is still understandable I feel and I stand by it. I do have to clarify one thing. The housing issue. I meant that officers in the eastern part of the state get more housing opportunities than those out west. That chaps my buttocks. But the statement that will cover that is"that's the way it's always been. "

Anonymous said...

From reading the comments above and having already retired from TDCJ, if you are looking to get rich or get much of any substantial pay increase, you are working at the wrong place. The ONLY positive recruiting feature of that agency is the BENEFITS! You get full coverage insurance for pennies compared to what you would have to pay in the open market; You also get somewhere around 14 paid holidays per year; You also get compensatory time for working their strange work schedules/hours; and for the most part, you are not out in the weather like you would be IF you were working in the oil patch. Those drillers and tool pushers really don't care if you are in the rain, covered in drilling mud, or freezing your butt off in the winter. They want you doing a JOB. And they pay you for those inconveniences. TDCJ is paying you to keep those people behind a fence and treat them "humanely" while they are there. My guess is that the people making the loudest noise on the pay issue are the ones that have been there less than 1 year. And that they are so young, that this is probably their very first job, EVER!

Anonymous said...

Prisons do not serve the purpose that they were created for anymore. It is completely a revenue based operation in which many innocent people are sent to prison by over-zealous prosecutors and a corrupt judicial system. Juror's are uninformed while trying to do what they think best or what is expected of them to do. This judicial system is unlawful and needs to be replaced by the Tribunal courts for justice. I'm sure that everyone would agree with me that are not on the take. Why else would 36,000 illegals be turned loose on Americans that include murderers and worst?

Grandmom said...

All those benefits mentioned by anonymous can't compensate for working in 100+ degrees during the summer. I'm surprised the guards aren't dying from the heat. The prisoners are.

Anonymous said...

TFA!, it is absolutely amazing how much people get up at arms when talking about pay raises in corrections. Don't recall anyone throwing a shit-fit when the TDCJ Executive Director and other executive positions took an ungodly pay increase last year??? Wasn't it something like a 45% pay raise? The correct statement would be "there is money for pay raises and you can work in corrections to get rich, if you manage to land an executive position."

Anonymous said...

Most people who work as correctional officers are very intelligent and realize crime has always been around. There are a few idiots the state is employing now, because of low standards, who think crime is just a runaway problem.

Working as a correctional officer, must of us realize cuts need to be made somewhere and cutting the prison population is the best place to start.

The state waste millions of dollars keeping elderly people in prison who did something 20-30 ago.

We realize Texas is not broke and can afford to pay the hard working correctional officers, who place their life on the line everyday, a competitive salary. Texas needs to better manage the money and use the savings to pay these officers who help keep civilization civilized. Texas prisons are seriously dangerous and the data is showing major increases in incidents.

TDCJ is now having to use visaed employees from non-English speaking countries to fill the massive amount of vacancies. Correcrions is a business that requires skilled communications and TDCJ is taking advantage of these foriegn workers who are willing to take the low pay and placing them in great danger.

Cutting corners and hiring standards will only get someone hurt.

He's Innocent said...

As a family member of an incarcerated person, and a member of TIFA, I can attest to the fact that our incarceration system is no longer about rehabilitation. It is strictly about retribution and money generation. 40% of the phone call revenue goes directly to the state. The commissary profits are supposed to support education, recreation supplies, and the like. It doesn't. The libraries are often closed, the educations is minimal or not offered at all, and there are no recreational amenities such as a damned basketball. Nothing. Idle minds create problems, I assure you.

Texas Inmate Families Association (TIFA) support guard pay raises. I personally oppose importing workers from Africa for these jobs. And I support criminal justice reform. It's all in what you tell your elected officials. Stop being emotional about your views and educate yourselves. Violent crime rates are down, yet prison populations continue to rise. Where is the sense in that?

Close prisons in Texas. Get over your silly Tough On Crime blowhard attitudes. It cripples families, places them in poverty, and kills successful re-entry for the vast majority of the 100k people TDCJ releases each year. Remember, more than 95% of everyone you send to prison will get out at some point. Would you prefer they become bitter at over incarceration, or learn a trade, or personal responsibility while inside?

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Speak on it!!! I used to be a co for 3 & 1/2 years. That is why I left. Below average pay with a substandard work environment.