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Texas Prison System Faces Critical Guard Shortage

by Matthew T. Clarke

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is understaffed by 3,152 guards, a 12% deficit compared to full staffing. The shortage has grown each year from an average of 8.5% in 2004. Some prison units have very large staffing shortfalls, including Dalhart (37%), Smith (33%), Coffield (31%), Beta (31%) and Ferguson (28%). The TDCJ guard shortage is the highest of any prison system in the country; it compares with 9% in California, 4% in Florida and under 1% in New York.

Experts claim the shortage is caused by poor pay and the rural location of some prisons, which make it difficult to call on the large labor pools available in cities. While this may explain the difficulty that TDCJ has in recruiting new hires, interviews with numerous TDCJ guards who quit have revealed that the most cited reason for leaving was supervisors? poor management skills.

TDCJ?s guard turnover rate was 24% in 2006; 30,000 guards have been hired since 2001, but 31,000 have left TDCJ during that same time period.
Halving the turnover rate would eliminate the guard staffing shortage in a single year.

Some Texas legislators expressed concerns that the lack of full prison staffing represented a safety problem.

?There is a public safety issue with the shortage,? stated Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, Chair of the Criminal Justice Committee. ?I?m told when you need two guards, you?ve got one, and sometimes you have none. It means that the public is at risk of a breakout. It means you endanger [guards] and you potentially endanger inmates.?

TDCJ denies any safety issue exists, claiming that guards working voluntary overtime and the elimination of ?nonessential? positions such as craft shop and recreation allow all critical areas to be staffed. This ignores the fact that staff who work overtime get tired and make mistakes, according to Floyd Smith, a 21-year TDCJ veteran and second vice-president of the Corrections Association of Texas (CAT). Pulling a double shift at most Texas prisons means working 24 hours straight. Also ignored is the fact that a prison system stretched to its limits has no slack to compensate for illness among its staff members. A total of 6,257 guards, about 27% of the TDCJ?s 23,163 guard workforce, worked an average of 25.2 overtime hours in February 2007.

Overtime cannot cure insufficient staffing according to Jay Hightower, a 15-year TDCJ veteran and CAT vice-president. ?Fatigue is going to come into play as long as you continue to work people long hours. The fact is, you have units that are drastically, dangerously short. That should be a concern to everyone. That should be a concern to legislators who pass bills.?

Some legislators, joined by Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and the TDCJ, have called for new prison construction to forestall a predicted prison crowding crisis. The Texas prison system is projected to have 17,000 more prisoners than currently available beds by 2012. Lawmakers have already allocated $273 million for new prison construction in a state budget that was approved by Gov. Rick Perry in June 2007.

?If you can?t staff the ones you have now, I don?t see how building a prison is going to help us much,? said State Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, Chair of the Appropriations Committee.

?How can you build them if you?ve got a [staff] shortage? ... For those who advocate building more prisons, politically it sounds great, but in terms of public safety and management, building prisons does not address that,? added State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. Marc Levin, of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, agreed. ?The big issue is that we?re 3,000 prison guards short, so there?s no way to staff these new prisons,? he said.

Perhaps Dewhurst and company believe in a prison ?Field of Dreams?: They need only build prisons and the staff will come. However, past experiences with Texas? attempt to build its way out of a prison overcrowding crisis proved only that when you build more prisons, courts will fill them with more prisoners.

Sources: Houston Chronicle, Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Texas Observer, personal interviews

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