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TDCJ Faces Ongoing Staffing Challenges

During the 1990s, many Texans believed prison construction would help boost the economies in rural areas. Today, ongoing staffing shortages in rural units are causing legislators and other officials to reconsider that assumption.

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Duane Stuart, who has been employed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for 22 years, says conditions for workers in prisons are only getting worse. The only thing keeping him in his job as a correctional officer is his desire for the retirement benefits that he will be eligible for after 30 years of employment.

Stuart added that his peers have been voicing concerns that some of the units are becoming increasingly unsafe, especially as staffing numbers shrink and employees are being forced to work overtime.

Several TDCJ facilities built in rural areas have had particular difficulty in attracting and retaining correctional officers. During fiscal year 2011, units in Kenedy, Beeville, Beaumont and Lamesa all had turnover rates above 40 percent. While TDCJ has increased its efforts to bring employees to these positions — addressing staffing issues remains a "top priority" for the department, said TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark — the problem has made headlines throughout the summer.

Two recent downsizings were announced at the Connally unit in South Texas: In June, four dorms containing a total of 376 beds in the facility were taken off-line explicitly because of employee shortages. (As of the end of the month, more than one-third of correctional officer positions for the unit remained open.) And in July, another four dorms containing an additional 320 beds went idle.

Declining incarceration rates allowed flexibility for these temporary cuts, but appropriate long-term solutions remain in debate. Clark attributes much of the staffing problems in South Texas to the growing oil and gas industry, which can offer higher-paying jobs. But correctional officers and advocates argue that the job conditions are simply too horrible for the position to be desired, no matter what other options may be available. 

Problems on the Job

Reasons abound for why the job as a correctional officer is a tough one: Pay is low, most prisons are not fully air-conditioned and inmates are not always happy to be taking orders.

With such staffing complaints, the overall turnover rate in TDCJ facilities has hovered above 20 percent at least since 2005. The average rate for fiscal year 2011 was 22.4 percent, with higher turnover seen among lower-level positions, and although this is not the highest it has been the department has identified seven rural units in particular that suffer from significant staffing shortages with a turnover rate above the average.

To help improve those facilities, in June the agency doubled its initial offer of a $1,500 bonus to correctional officers who agree to work for at least one year. The department also built “bachelor officer quarters” that can house up to 96 employees in the Beeville and Kenedy area.

Still, in a survey by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, in partnership with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, 79 percent of correctional officers polled said they felt under-compensated. (The current starting salary for full-time correctional officers is $2,319.05 a month. Veteran officers, those with 90 months on the job, earn more than $3,000 monthly.)

“It’s a horrible job," said Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the TCJC. "The stress that you go through is horrific."

The poll was conducted for submission to the Sunset Advisory Commission, which is currently conducting its 12-year review of TDCJ. The survey also highlights the need for an improved employee grievance process. About three-fourths of those surveyed said they did not find the process to be "fair and effective."

Stuart agreed that staff are hesitant to report any corruption or wrongdoing to TDCJ. In addition to his role as correctional officer, he also helps to manage an independent site called The Backgate Website, which provides a forum for TDCJ employees to discuss prison and job issues and could be considered to be helping “fill that void,” he said.

Clark wrote in an email that TDCJ “encourages employees and supervisors to attempt resolution of a situation by using informal problem-solving techniques,” but explained that the department also facilitates a three-step grievance process for any employee who remains unsatisfied.

“TDCJ is committed to making sure employees are treated fairly and equitably,” Clark added.

The Sunset Commission is expected to announce Sept. 5 whether it will use testimony given regarding the department.

Paying the Price

A recent Backgate post about TDCJ “staffing woes” by Michael Williams warned that “the agency will be in real crisis within the next year if things don’t change.” Staffing plans, Williams writes, “have been cut to the bone” as each officer must take on more responsibilities.

The turnover rate raises several issues, said Michele Deitch, a prison conditions expert and professor at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs. TDCJ is consequently operating prisons run by staff with less experience, which can create security problems and increased violations of prison rules.

Deitch noted that TDCJ is also losing money spent in training its staff.

Some have found hope in the declining prison rate. This month, TDCJ reported its lowest number of inmates in the last five years. The population as of Aug. 10 was 152,595 inmates, which is down from 156,522 in fiscal year 2011 but still higher than the populations for fiscal years 2002 through 2005.

One factor contributing to the high turnover rates for correctional officers, though, cannot be fixed: the rural locations of some prisons.

During the prison boom of the 1990s, as the number of state prisons more than tripled, a belief pervaded that the construction and operation of new lockups would stimulate a surrounding community’s economy. This assumption has been largely unsupported, but the prisons remain.

“Whether you were pro-prison building or against it, everyone thought it was a form of economic development," Deitch said. “In the long-term sense, they never should have been built there.”

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate committee on criminal justice, agreed that many prisons were built in the wrong places and for the wrong reasons. Now, he said, legislators need to focus on getting Texans to pay for improvement of conditions for the workers.

But Scott Henson, a former reporter who writes the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast, said increased spending on prisons is unlikely.

“We’re at the complete end of that cycle that was begun 22 years ago. No one wants to foot the bill for how expensive it is,” Henson said.

Most agree that the temporary closures in Kenedy due to staffing shortages are not something to be celebrated, but Henson said that the state should continue efforts to reduce the prison population and close prisons in an intentional manner

Even after the state closed its first prison last year, Henson said, Texas is operating more prisons than it should be. 

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