Monday, January 19, 2015

Might declining oil prices boost TDCJ employment, and for how long?

The precipitous drop in oil prices over the last couple months has the energy industry contemplating layoffs while delighted consumers pay half the price at the pump for gasoline as they did just a few months ago. There's been much speculation about what falling oil prices may mean for the Texas economy and the viability of capital-intensive fracking operations (not to mention the international geopolitical implications of low oil prices, which are immense).

It occurred to me from reading the business press on this topic that it's possible suspension of high-cost production could offer a silver lining for rural Texas prisons which have been competing, unsuccessfully, for prison guards against much higher paying oil field jobs. If low oil prices force significant layoffs (and producers are already taking rigs offline), then perhaps some of those workers will now seek employment at TDCJ, providing short-term relief for dangerously understaffed rural prisons.

Of course, if and when oil prices rise again - which will likely have more to do with international geopolitics than any strategy by domestic producers or Texas political leaders - TDCJ will be right back where it started, leaching large numbers employees to the oil and gas industry. Oil field work is much more dangerous than being a prison guard (or a police officer, for that matter) but pays more and doesn't involve interacting with criminals or butting heads with an ossified and anachronistic bureaucracy. When oilfield jobs are plentiful, they're much more attractive than working in a prison. In the near term, though, with fewer such jobs in the offing, Grits expects TDCJ's employment numbers to receive a positive boost.

If that happens, there will likely be legislators suggesting the state de-prioritize TDCJ's proposed staff raises, which are aimed at enticing more employees to sign up as guards and to stay on the job once they've been trained and gotten a taste of working in a prison. With Texas on a two-year budget cycle, deferring those raises would be short-sighted, especially when the state can afford them, having just received an especially sanguine revenue estimate.

The state should use this short-term respite to plan for the near inevitability of oil prices rising again, improving pay for prison staff and closing the most understaffed units entirely. When oil prices go back up, the effects on prison employment will likely be rapid and brutal. Legislators and the agency may have been granted temporary relief on this front thanks to rapid deflationary pressure on oil prices. But that doesn't acquit them from making tough choices. It just means they'll have no excuses if and when prices rise again and the agency faces another, perhaps even more severe understaffing crisis than it faces today.


sunray's wench said...

I would suggest that while prison guards could also do oil field work, the oil workers would not always be suitable for prison work.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Maybe, sw, but the fact is TDCJ is so understaffed they just need warm bodies. "Suitable" to them basically means the applicant has no (or limited) criminal record and a pulse.

There are so few workers in those parts of the state that beggars can't be choosers, which is part of the reason IMO they should close the ones with the wost understaffing. Even if they hire more staff, that doesn't mean the available rural labor pool has sufficient quantities of the kind of folks who'd make good prison guards.

He's Innocent said...

I'm left to wonder, in the rush to get ANY income in, what sort of attitude will that former oil field employee have on the job at TDCJ? I'd be willing to bet that hostility and/or contempt might be at the top of the list. Being a family member of a recent TDCJ guest, a bad guard, with a bad attitude is pretty much worse than none at all.

sunray's wench said...

I agree. Smaller, modern prisons in urban areas would benefit the agency (larger employment pool) the inmates (better accommodation and the facility more able to allow for the video visitation that has been recommended), the community (reentry opportunities would increase) and family and friends (easier visitation etc). TDCJ could even benefit by selling off the land that the closed units would sit on, and by restructuring the staff.

Anonymous said...

re: Sunray's wench re: Video visitation recommended? It is only recommended by the company selling it, the incarceration facilities that have swallowed the sales pitch and the penny pinchers that justify it as better than nothing at all.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@11:10, I support video visitation in ADDITION to in person visits. They serve a purpose and families use them.

But when they're used as a substitute for in-person visits instead of a supplement, you're right, it's a sleazy scam. The goal should be to let tech increase family contact, not just make it as profitable as possible for Securus and the jails.

sunray's wench said...

Anon 11.10 if you are able to visit your friend or family member in TDCJ regularly (at least once a month) then of course you would have no need to video visits. You would probably be able to talk on the phone with them too.

I can only visit my husband once a year, and would welcome an occasional phone call (TDCJ inmates are not permitted to call overseas) or the chance to have an occasional video visit during the year. I haven't "swallowed" anything, I'm well aware of how a capitalist society works.

JJ said...

Maybe, because one would qualify for food stamps and other forms of social welfare/indigency programs in addition to the 1500 month pay they get. Sick expectations, I know. Their leadership in thinks they should be damn proud to know the guards are getting everything they (leadership) have fought for. Translation: you get crap so lean on social welfare programs if you don't like it. What a disgusting agency this is.