Thursday, August 16, 2018

TDCJ can't stem staff turnover crisis at remote, rural units; #txlege must align policy with reality and reduce low-level drug sentences

While your correspondent was on a much-needed vacation, the Houston Chronicle's indefatigable Keri Blakinger published a story updating the Texas prison system's efforts to staff rural units, which have up to 49 percent vacancy rates. Her article opened:
The Texas prison system handed out more than $9 million this fiscal year on bonuses to aid recruitment as they grappled with extensive officer vacancies, but department data shows the cash outlay has hardly moved the needle. 
Seven months after the state launched a concerted effort to bring down the 14 percent officer vacancy rate, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice still has 3,675 unfilled positions - roughly 30 more than in January when the leadership started tackling the problem.
Despite record hiring bonuses given out to new hires at understaffed facilites, Blakinger reported:
more units are severely understaffed now than last fall. The latest unit-by-unit figures - from May 31 - show that fourteen units were under 75 percent staffed. Dalhart was down to 51 percent staffed. At the Daniel Unit, between Lubbock and Abilene, staffing dropped from from 77 percent in October to only 62 percent of jobs filled in May. 
And the notorious Ferguson Unit - where a teacher was allegedly raped by an inmate last year in an incident her lawyers blamed on understaffing - was down to 69 percent staffed. 
Of the 29 units with hiring bonuses, 19 - including Daniel, Ferguson and Dalhart - had higher vacancy rates in May than they did in October.
Employees punished alongside prisoners
Blakinger raised the seldom-discussed but potent employment barrier of requiring people to work in un-air-conditioned prison units. Litigation framed the issue in terms of prisoners' health and well being, but the more pressing state interest may be the inability to hire people to work in harsh, unpleasant conditions:
“If they would air condition every unit across the state they would keep more people,” said one officer, who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. “If you as a corrections officer tell your lieutenant, ‘Look I’m hot, I need to go cool down,’ they’re gonna laugh you off the unit.”
Ask yourself: Would you take a job in a small rural town for a low-thirties salary surrounded by convicted felons in an un-air-conditioned metal building? I'm guessing most people reading this would say "No." (And if you would say "Yes," go apply to your nearest prison. They're hiring.)

These various issues compound. Understaffing contributes to a more dangerous and occasionally deadly environment for guards, and the summer heat amps up everybody's tensions, making prisons a more perilous place to work, less inviting to new applicants, and more likely to drive away existing employees.

That's the piece the hiring bonuses can't and won't solve. Former union boss Lance Lowry made that point in the story. “A bonus just gets people in the door,” he said. “We’ve never had a problem getting people in the door - the problem is getting those employees to stay.” That's exactly right. A "turnover" problem is about dissatisfaction of employees who are already on the payroll, not how many people arrive on the front end.

Piddling guard salaries and the limits of prison parsimony
The biggest problems remain low pay and oppressive workplace conditions. IMO the rural settings wouldn't matter and TDCJ could easily fill its positions if prison guards here made as much as in California, for example, where the union is politically powerful and starting salaries are around double what they are here.

Texas spends $3.5 billion per year on TDCJ, which sounds like a lot, but given our highest-in-the-country prison population numbers, we're pretty chintzy when it comes to spending on state prisons, a point I made in the story:
“We already pay less to incarcerate people than just about every other state,” Henson said. A 2015 Vera Institute of Justice analysis showed that Texas has 11.6 percent of the country’s state prisoners, but only accounts for 7.6 percent of prison spending. 
“We’re underspending at pretty radical levels,” he added. “If you don’t want to spend more, your options are: incarcerate fewer people. That’s it.” 
Marc Levin, vice president of criminal justice policy at non-profit Texas Public Policy in Austin, agreed. 
“I think it’s the ideal solution,” he said. “We would obviously want to look at the units with the biggest staffing issues and biggest capital costs.”
Based on the Vera Institute figures cited above, if Texas' proportion of state prison spending matched its proportion of state prisoners - i.e., if we spent the nationwide average amount per-prisoner - we'd spend $5.3 billion per year instead of $3.5 billion.

The pretense of parsimony is a picayune point of pride for many Texas legislators, but it's also the source of most of the prison systems problems. Texas' under-spending comes from several sources, but mainly low guard pay, lack of air conditioning, and dramatic under-spending on inmate health care

A prescription to match the diagnosis
Grits was further quoted in the story, pointing out that there's only one, real solution to the problem: "to reduce the incarceration levels enough to close more units and this time target units with high vacancy rates for closure." Let's explore that a bit further.

The shortest distance to lowering incarceration levels in Texas is to reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenders. Texas has already adjusted property-theft thresholds for inflation, diverting thousands of low-level theft offenders from prison. And the 2007 probation and parole reforms have likely reached the limits of what can be expected from probation reform: after a decade, local judges and probation departments remain slow to reduce revocations for technical violations or use early-release provisions for successful probationers. Probation departments have economic incentives to keep successful, fee-paying offenders on the rolls and to revoke those who cause headaches, whether or not those folks engage in criminal misbehavior.

Best case: Probation reform may offer medium to long-term savings, but in the short-term would actually require more investment.

That leaves two large categories: drug offenders and people convicted of violent crimes.

While we do over-incarcerate violent offenders, locking thousands of people up long after they've aged out of crime and pose little threat to society, any statute change aimed at reducing incarceration for that group would result in long-term benefits that won't address the immediate crisis. The person incarcerated for ten years instead of 15 saves the state a lot of money, to be sure, but we wouldn't see any of the savings for a full decade after they were sentenced. 

By contrast. reducing penalties for low-level drug offenders - say, making possession of up to four grams a Class A misdemeanor instead of a felony - would save lots of money in the immediate, biennial state budget, and even more in the long term. Legislators only view the budget in terms of a two-year time horizon (since many of them won't even be legislators ten years from now). So politically, out-year savings are mostly irrelevant at the capitol. Altering drug sentences would have the biggest short-term impact on both decarceration and budget savings, allowing the state to move toward immediate closure of several units and solving numerous, nagging problems at once.

That's the only real alternative for reducing incarceration enough in the near term to help Texas with its rural-prison understaffing problem. New-hire bonuses are a band-aid, at best, and won't stop staff from wanting to leave these hot, dangerous, underpaid jobs.


BarkGrowlBite said...

An academic who made an extensive study of a California institution concluded that the bulls run the institution from 8 am to 5 pm, after which the cons take over.

Not so fast there with your non-violent drug offender solution. I don't have a problem with making possession of up to four grams a Class A misdemeanor. But I venture to say that most of those doing time in prison for possession of drugs were really drug dealers who had their charges pleaded down from distribution to simple possession.

Anonymous said...

So if we air conditioned inmate living spaces we'd be able to retain more quality inmates for supervisory roles on second and third shift?

I'm.not sure what you're barking about here

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@BGB, you might venture to say that, and you wouldn't be the first, but a) there's zero evidence that it's true, and b) it's irrelevant since dealing and possession are punished the same - by weight of the drugs. If I've got between 4 and 200 grams of a controlled substance, e.g., it's a second degree felony either way.

FWIW, in 2016, there were 15,551 new receives in TDCJ for possession, and 4,583 for dealing (see here, p. 21) Since by definition there are many more users than dealers, that ratio seems to imply that prosecutors aren't afraid to charge and convict people for dealing in this state whenever they can.

@anon, no, if we air-conditioned prisons, the guards employed there would work in air-conditioned spaces and be less likely to quit. That's the argument. Not sure what's confusing you.

Anonymous said...

I was facetiously responding to BGB's observation that inmates run the prisons outside of 8 to 5. >_< said...

I've listened to one Republican Judge in Harris County say that the long sentencing guidelines we have in Texas were originally put there as a deterrent in hopes that the possibility of getting such a harsh sentence would serve as a deterrent against using and/or selling drugs. However, he admitted, it clearly has not worked, since drugs are cheaper and more readily available and of a higher potency than they were when we first started this, "war on drugs" and he conceded that continuing this obviously failed policy would be counter-intuitive and not serve the people's best interests ..I totally agree with the judge.

Steven Michael Seys said...

Texas has come a long way since the 1980s to free the many wrongfully convicted prisoners, but the state could reduce the prison population by three to ten percent if a serious effort were made to investigate the convictions of those in the highest sentence brackets. A little logic and empirical method applied to the police work and many convictions will be shown for what they are, fabrications. Since these are the ones who clog the system for extended periods of time, the savings would be long term, not just short term.
On the other side of the coin, if the original investigating authorities knew that their work would be reviewed down the road they would be less likely to fabricate in the first place and the oversight group would work itself out of a job, perhaps reduced to a caretaker role. Think that over.

BarkGrowlBite said...

Grits, if you believe those drug offenders are in prison just for possession of less than four grams, you've been smoking too much funny tobacco.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry due process is so inconvenient for you Officer

charles said...

Take this idea under advisement: release from parole those people who have been on parole more than 10 years with no violations, failed UAs etc., then, take those supervision costs and move over to increase salaries for more guards at these rural units. Yes, just let older parolees off parole. People say 50+ years old who have "aged out". Why keep spending money on this group of people who pose no threat to their community? Let them go and take that money you spend supervising them and just move that money over. Makes sense to me.

Anonymous said...

BGB, you might want to do a little research into the number of under four gram users in prison compared to dealers. There's far more of them than there are dealers. Grit's has done his homework on this issue. The whole Tough On Crime fiasco of the 80's isn't working and instead of diverting some of the money spent on housing low level drug users going to treatment, Texas keeps wanting to double down on incarceration and then wring their hands because it isn't working.

The air conditioning of the units which are mostly nothing more than sheet metal buildings with no insulation would be a good first step towards reducing Correctional Officer turnover as well as save the state millions in wrongful death payouts for those who have died from excessive heat. It would also cut down on the disturbances inside among the inmates as anyone who has ever studied the problem will tell you that as temperatures climb, so do tempers among the inmates as well as the guards. When that happens, it's never going to be a good outcome for all involved.

@6:50am makes a valid point about those parolees who have "aged out" being released from supervision, or at least much less supervision saving the state money. Then use the money where it is more cost effective. I might also add that if TDCJ would do a better job of hiring PO's whose goal is to help those on parole avoid getting revoked instead of looking for any and every way they can to revoke them so they don't have to deal with them, it would also save TDCJ and the state millions of dollars that could be better spent elsewhere.

BarkGrowlBite said...

Anon 8:25 AM, most of those "under four gram users" were originally charged with dealing and plea bargained the charge down to possession.

My experience as a parole officer and my group therapy volunteer work at the Ferguson Unit gives me some credibility on this matter. Furthermore, I have visited several state prisons in Texas, the federal prison in Bastrop, and prisons in California, Arizona and Florida. The inmates in those prisons doing time for possession had for the most part been originally charged with sales. And many of them had a history of violent crimes before the arrest which got them sent to prison.

Anonymous said...

So why is it your solution to leave people in prison because anecdotally they comitted a more severe crime instead of voting out the DA and Judge who hatched and signed the plea in the first place?

I bet Judge Dredd is your favorite movie.

Those DA's and Judges get and keep their jobs by popular mandate. Cops get theirs by passing a PT test and buttoning up a uniform. Learn some respect.

Unknown said...

1. You don't "Age-Out" on a violent crime, especially murder. Your victim[s] didn't have that opportunity.
2. The units should be air conditioned. Period. There is a valid 8th Amendment claim that is finally being addressed. TDCJ's policy used to be that if a dead inmates family sued, just settle cheap and move on. The same way that they dealt with Employment suits. Hopefully that is changing. Interesting that this issue wasn't a part of RUIZ. Perhaps there is some validity to the concept of Global Warming...ya think?
3. Although not on the grand scale of incarceration, one of the biggest problems that I encounter in some of the more conservative counties is that a marijuana conviction, no matter the amount, has a mandatory driver's license suspension for 6 months. This provision needs to be addressed and eliminated ASAP!

Anonymous said...

"after a decade, local judges and probation departments remain slow to reduce revocations for technical violations or use early-release provisions for successful probationers." I know this blog tends to be a fact-free zone, but here is an interesting fact. In FY 2009, judges and probation departments granted early release to 5,526 probationers. In FY 2016, they granted early release to 12,093 probationers. And that was in the face of a total probation population that dropped from 241,265 to 236,202.

Anonymous said...

To paraphrase "Noodles Romanoff" the notorious crime boss of Roger Ramjet fame:

"Crimez dusn't payz az wellz az oilsfieldz woik"

BB8 said...

@BGB 8.25am-

"Anon 8:25 AM, most of those "under four gram users" were originally charged with dealing and plea bargained the charge down to possession."

Got a reference?

Steven Michael Seys said...

@2: The reason that the heat problem in Texas prisons hasn't been brought up in a Ruiz-style class action suit is that the Prison Litigation Reform Act made it illegal for prisoners to bring a class action suit on the conditions of confinement, the only way for such a suit under PLRA is for a judge to combine three or more suits into a class action. But you will never get that many suits before the same judge in Texas because no lawyer is willing to file against the TDCJ and indigent prisoners have impassable hurdles to file pro se under PLRA. All a magistrate has to do is claim the suit is frivolous and let the appeal process wear the prisoner out.

Anonymous said...

Except every probationer except DWI and sex offenders are elligible for early discharges after two years or 1/3 of their sentence, whichever is least and those numbers show only 5% of the total population was granted early discharge. 95% of probationers are not sex criminals or drunk drivers.

The problem is that probationers, through an attorney, have to petition their court for early termination, the probation departments aren't compelled to review cases at a 1/3 or 2 year benchmark for discharge.

How many probationers can afford to go back to court, or even worse how many do you think could successfully petition on their own?

Anonymous said...

7:44, you need to update your information.

1) Many assault-type offenses are not allowed early release, either.
2) For felons, there is a mandatory consideration for early release after 2 years or 1/2 of the sentence, whichever is more. They don't have to hire an attorney; the probation department sends a report to the judge, and the judge decides.
3) If the person has violated their conditions of supervision, the judge does not have to consider early release. At the same time, I've seen many, many cases in which a person has major problems early in their probation, they make positive changes, the probation department recommends early release, and the judge grants it.

Anonymous said...

I could very well be out if date, I only read Article 42.12 recreationally, not for a living :)

Even this however is less than ideal... Under the system you outlined the probationer isn't even involved in the process outside of "being on probation." And I don't know what mechanism there is in place to verify that reviews are being conducted or that judges even read them. That looks like a bureaucratic closet that things get stuffed into and sometimes come out.

But still only 5% were granted early release

Anonymous said...

A modest, market-based solution to improve criminal justice outcomes: every county gets
to incarcerate inmates in proportion to their population. If one county has a higher than
average incarceration rate, they have to pay the state for each inmate over the limit. If another county has a lower incarceratipn rate, they would be rewarded with a rebate for saving the state money. Make exceptions for murder and sex offenses. Exempt counties with populations under 50K. Incarceration is a free good for the counties. Free goods get over-utilized.