Thursday, November 16, 2017

Understaffing at Texas prisons and the implications for decarceration

Your correspondent was quoted in a page one article in the Houston Chronicle today, "Mass exodus of Texas prison guards leaves some units understaffed," about guard shortages at Texas prisons, a topic that Grits has covered for many years. (The author, Keri Blakinger, is new to the Chronicle and the beat, so cut her a little slack for being late to the party; she got here as quickly as she could.)

Statewide, the turnover rate among prison guards was 28 percent last year, but at some units it was much higher.
County-by-county numbers show that staffing challenges can be highly localized and specific, as in the Texas Panhandle. Hartley and Dallam counties are not in an area particularly known for oil and gas, but a cheese factory in Dalhart has typically pulled away would-be prison workers, Henson said. 
The other two — Mitchell and Dawson counties — are in the oil-rich Permian Basin. 
"Whether people will work in prisons depends on hyperlocal economic conditions," Henson said. "A prison is someplace that you work as a job of last resort."
Here's a map of the counties with the highest turnover rates among correctional officers:

State Sen. John Whitmire honed in on the fundamental problem:
"I believe in most instances we put the prisons in all the wrong places," said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chair of the Texas Senate's criminal justice committee. "Some are located in communities that don't even have housing available for the corrections officers."
Bingo! Many of Texas' prisons were located in sparsely populated areas thanks to a failed Democratic electoral strategy from the Ann Richards era. Richards sought bond funding to expand prison capacity far beyond what was necessary to accommodate federal prison reform litigation (Ruiz v. Estelle). The idea was to promote prisons as rural jobs programs in areas which were depopulating and which historically had voted Democratic. But Democrats badly miscalculated. On that same 1994 ballot, voters gave a thumbs up to the prison bonds and a thumbs-down to Ann Richards.

Meanwhile, the reasons rural areas were depopulating did not change thanks to an influx of low-waged jobs nobody wants. And so now, at many of those locations, there aren't enough warm bodies to fill the positions.

Closing units where staffing problems are most acute would make a lot of sense from TDCJ management perspective. But so far, prison units closed in Texas have been based on political considerations, sometimes including real estate interests that want to use the land for other stuff. But one can make the argument for reducing incarceration, say, of low-level drug possession offenders simply because it's becoming dangerously difficult to guard them out in the middle of nowhere in a short-staffed and under-funded setting.

Save money. Increase liberty. Make the prison system safer. What's not to like?

Almost seven years ago, Grits offered up a sort of decarceration manifesto at a time when Texas had never closed a prison since the founding of the Republic. Titled, "Six Impossible Things: Do you believe in a conservative, rational, and smaller corrections budget," I made these broad points (subheds to the article):
  1. Prison closures aren't just possible but necessary
  2. Texas can safely incarcerate fewer low-risk nonviolent prisoners
  3. Incarcerating more people costs more money
  4. Community supervision is still punishment
  5. Releasing people is what prisons do, so we must do reentry better
  6. The prison bureaucracy is not the best judge of its own inefficiencies
With 20/20 hindsight - after Texas has reduced its prison population by nearly 10 percent and closed eight units - all of these "impossible things" turned out to be true, and they still are. Prison closures remain necessary because if we don't reduce the number of prisoners and shutter more units, costs will escalate. Both Texas' own experience and the examples of other states show #2 was correct, and #3 has always to me seemed self-evident, the Legislative Budget Board's pro-enhancement posturing notwithstanding. And the public is prepared, in my estimation, to believe #6. But numbers 4 and 5 haven't really bubbled up to the surface of public consciousness in the way one might like.

Regardless, Grits first began tracking the guard understaffing story because of its implications for decarceration and prison closures, and Ms. Blakinger's reporting shows those underlying dynamics remain strongly in play. The prison system has an interest in reducing its size and the number of people it incarcerates for its own institutional reasons, independently of advocates seeking that outcome. That creates some interesting near-term possibilities as the Legislature faces another money-strapped session in 2019. A lot there to chew on.

MORE: From the Beaumont Enterprise.


Anonymous said...

"so cut her a little slack for being late to the party"

Yeah, who's the jackass that snarked at her?

Anonymous said...


Irregardless is not a word


Gritsforbreakfast said...

@BB, it's a colloquialism, which I don't mind using on this blog. (My editors have never complained!) But in this case, "independently" captured the meaning better so I did edit it.

Anonymous said...

Understaffing in the prisons in Texas puts the inmates and guards in harm's way. 90% of the drugs in prison is brought in by guards, because of the low pay and risks of the job. Placing prisons in small rural towns who have no jobs is very bad. Most of the guards hired are not qualified and do not have a high school education, so they get the jobs. Why should the guards work in an environment in the summer that has no air conditioning? Texas prison system is a disaster!!!! Starting with the Parole Board, on down to the guards. Inmates are human also and everyone in the system is humans and should be treated as such. Sure, there are some very bad inmates, and guards, that need to be addressed. Any inmate that constantly causes problems should be separated from those trying to better themselves and staying out of trouble. Why make those trying to do better, pay for those troublemakers? All these things are causing understaffing, correct them and there will be no more uderstaffing.

Anonymous said...

Keri is also new to Texas - so be nice and show her a bit of Texas hospitality!

Anonymous said...

We can turn them out of prison so they can run the hood. But that isn't really necessary because there are plenty of criminals already living in the hood to run the hood. That isn't really necessary because lots of these locked up criminals run things and call the shots from their prison cell.

Anonymous said...

my son has served 6 plus years of a 40 year sentence for a crime he did not commit. His only real mistake was taking a plea bargain and then not abiding by the judges arbitrary rules. He had never had any experience with the so-called judicial system, and has paid a dear price ever since.

Anonymous said...

I worked for TDCJ in the 1990s. I remember one person saying they put a prison at one location because there was good deer hunting in the area.

rozmataz said...

Many prisoners have mental illnesses, head injuries, and psychoses that the guards aren't trained to work with and the wardens don't give a GD. My son got a raw deal in his court case and after entering the system has been severely beaten by guards, knifed and beaten up by two other inmates. And he had a traumatic bran injury at age 19. His dumb, egotistical attorney didn't explain that to the jury and the appeals court said the attorney had not provided a defense on which the jury could find a case of self defense (which it was)for my son. I don't believe the Texas Criminal Supremes even read his appeal, already 8 years have gone by and we still haven't been heard by a federal court-the only hope I have for some justice in Texas. I'm just praying, at this juncture, that he isn't killed by a guard (some are demonic) or inmate. Mentally ill inmates should have received treatment before they committed a crime and maybe the crime wouldn't have happened at all. If they do end up in prison, they should be treated, segregated from general population where guards are educated on how to interact with them. What a mess.

Anonymous said...

What a mess is right sorry about your son. Let me say there are plenty of hoods/criminals not only running the halls of the Texas capital building but runing the legislature the senate and house both. Those are the real hoods running things. If change is to occur it will have to start at that level. It really has to start with the people who have loved ones incarcerated or when enough people wake up. But don't hold your breath.
As far as short staffing goes TDCJ covers its you know what JUST ON PAPER. On paper they show primary (most important for safety and security) positions assigned to a correctional officer (guard) to work that position so on paper it looks like an officer is assigned there but in actually no officer is in fact there especially at night. This can be proved by looking at times sheets for the total number of COs that actually came to work on a specific date and the number of total positions that need to be assigned let TDCJ defend that. It really is true that if all security procedures were followed the prison units would not be able to run. The warden,major,caption lt. and sgt. all know that and know that procedures are not being followed because most of them promoted up the ranks and have worked as COs so yes they know how it really goes and that procedures are not followed. Here is another example of security procedure to be followed but is not-only one door of a dorm is to be opened at a time to turn out inmates for chow or mass movement but instead more than one door is opened at a time to turn them out to run the chow or other mass movements. Again the rank knows what really happens. Opening more than one door at a time during mass movement speeds up the process of getting all the inmates out of the building and typically happens on state jail units which have open type dorms with three dorms side by side. A CO in the picket controls the dorm doors as well as the sally port door and the out side door by remote and can open all doors at once. Too many inmates turning out at the same time can be dangerous. If procedure was followed however chow would take too long especially on big units also having dorm type housing like Hamilton a substance abuse treatment unit. Plus there are many other activites that must be done on a unit.

Maybe some one will find this info usefull if it's read.
What a mess.