A union representing Texas correctional officers is arguing that a pay raise approved by state budget writers last week would be insufficient and lead to erosion of security in the state's prisons.
While the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has long maintained that all of its critical positions are filled and that the security of prison employees is not in danger, members of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents prison workers, warned Monday that without more pay corruption and physical danger would threaten their members.
The final state budget proposal that lawmakers will soon vote on includes a 5 percent pay increase for correctional officers, which would cost taxpayers $105.2 million. Budget writers approved the proposed pay raise with little controversy since it was included in both the House and Senate versions of the budget, said Legislative Budget Board spokesman John Barton. It was also supported by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
"It's like putting a small bandage on a bullet hole," said Lance Lowry, president of the Texas chapter of the correctional officers' union. "The prison system will continue to grow more and more dangerous as our staffing declines and the level of expertise declines."
Lowry explained that between the rise in the cost of living and a recent increase in retirement contributions, correctional officers "will only see a little over 1 percent increase in their actual pay this next September."
The union had originally asked for a 14 percent pay increase, citing the rise in higher-paying drilling jobs in areas where prisons are located.
The result of low pay, Lowry said, is an increase in corruption, and a press release from the prison employee union noted that in February, 17 former prison guards were indicted by a federal grand jury for having brought drugs and cellphones to inmates at the McConnell Unit in Beeville. The inmates, according to court records, were coordinating gang crimes outside of the prison.
"The majority of correctional officers are honest," Lowry said, but "the poor pay, lack of experience, and work conditions make prison officers more susceptible to corruption."
Texas prison officers have a turnover rate of 22.38 percent, according to the agency's Legislative Appropriation Request, which noted that "any changes in the offender population combined with security staff shortages are key factors impacting security."
“We're not uncomfortable with staffing,” said John Hurt, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “All of our critical security positions are filled."
Although Lowry said it is likely too late to get a larger pay raise than the 5 percent in the current budget, he said that the union "definitely wants to expose that the Legislature has not properly addressed the staffing issues."