A union representing Texas prison employees is calling on the Legislature to consider a pay raise for correctional officers, saying current employee shortages could be dangerous and will only be exacerbated by a boom in drilling jobs in areas that house most of the state’s prisons.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which agrees that it must compete and has offered bonuses to lure employees away from those drilling jobs, says it has no security concerns related to staffing and is working with the Legislature to raise pay for guards.
The Texas chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents prison workers in Texas, is pointing to “new geological data" which they say "indicates the Eagle Ford Shale and Woodbind Shale" will become a source for new jobs "through the heart of the Texas prison system, between Huntsville and Palestine."
“There are 18 prison units in that area alone, and that area is expected to see a substantial increase in oil fracking and drilling,” said Lance Lowry, president of the Texas chapter. “Many COs [correctional officers] see the earning potential in the oil industry and are going there.”
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has faced staffing shortages over the last year. In June 2012, the department closed parts of the Connally unit in Kenedy, southeast of San Antonio, and moved the inmates to other facilities, because of a 40-percent vacancy rate. In October, Lowry sent a letter to Gov. Rick Perry, noting that his organization had found the prison system was short by more than 2,700 officers.
Prison officials also attribute the shortage to the rise of the oil and gas industry in South Texas, which created lucrative drilling jobs that compete with prisons for workers. The private companies pay better, agreed Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman John Hurt in December. “But the state is always having that problem,” he said. “We're never going to be able to compete financially with the private sector.”
Last year, prison officials offered a $3,000 bonus to new prison employees in certain units where the oil and gas boom had created the most competitive hiring environment. "The agency is working closely with the legislature regarding pay raises for our employees," Hurt said, adding that the department will ask the Legislature to fund officer dormitories, an added perk as they try to recruit new hires.
Hurt maintained that the department has no security concerns and that no staffing policies are being violated.
“We're not uncomfortable with staffing,” Hurt said. “All of our critical security positions are filled.”