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Guards Flee Texas Prisons After Overtime Eliminated

The virtual elimination of overtime pay for guards--a cost-cutting move by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ)--has contributed to rising turnover rates and probably comprised safety in the state's chronically understaffed prisons.

In March 2003, TDCJ began awarding comp" time for the first 240 hours of overtime worked during a year, rather than traditional overtime pay. (Comp time simply allows guards to take off an amount of time equal to that worked in overtime.) The practice realized huge savings on the surface--TDCJ paid $36.1 million in overtime in fiscal year 2002, compared with $2 million in 2004--but has cost money in other areas, such as safety and training.

Prison guards in Texas earn $2,589 a month, roughly one-fifth the salary of TDCJ executive director Brad Livingston. With the elimination of overtime pay guards are leaving in droves, making it difficult for administrators to keep prisons fully staffed. In 2004, 5,511 prison guards quit--roughly 21% of the entire workforce.

It worries me, and I suspect it worries people in charge of these prisons," said Dan Beto, director of the Correctional Management Institute of Texas at Sam Houston State University. It creates additional stress on those who are there.

Now, with thousands of vacancies to fill, guards are sometimes forced to come in early or stay late. Those who refuse are written up" for failing to obey an order. A third offense can lead to termination. (Forced overtime is legal in Texas, where employment is considered an at will" relationship.)

Guards also complain that it's difficult to schedule comp time. With the shortage of staff, they can't take off," said Samuel Davis, President of the Correctional Association of Texas. That's why many of the correctional officers are walking away from the job.

The staffing shortage negatively impacts the work environment in other ways as well. Some guards, such as those with positions in the law library or education department, work standard 5-day, 8-hour schedules. Most, however, work 12-hour shifts, with 4 days on and 4 days off. Those working 8-hour shifts get no meal break and are lucky to get a restroom break. Guards working 12-hour shifts are supposed to get at least one 30-minute break, but even that is sometimes impossible.

Morale's not real good right now because of the shortage," said Beto. Just how serious an issue it is, is hard to comment on. Sure, it proposes a safety issue.

In addition to compromising safety, the high turnover costs taxpayers. Each new guard must undergo 5½ weeks of training, which cost the state $3.8 million in 2004. It's a disaster because you're constantly training a new work force," said Richard E. Griffin, an attorney with Houston-based Jackson Walker and former chairman of the Arkansas prison system. It's a tremendous expense, and it's inefficient because you don't have experience at the positions that you need."

Source: Houston Chronicle

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