As previously reported in PLN, a record number of Texas prison guards have been arrested in recent years [see: PLN, May 2007, p. 26]. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has now confirmed that over a recent 12-month period, a record number of prison staff have also been disciplined.
The Backgate, a TDCJ watchdog group operated by TDCJ employees, obtained the statistics – which were then published in the Huntsville Item online. They reveal that 7,786 disciplinary actions were filed against TDCJ guards in the past fiscal year. The largest categories of infractions included unexcused absenteeism (1,719) and substandard performance (1,574).
780 of the disciplinary actions were for violations of statutory authority, 494 were for failure to obey a proper order, 249 were for tardiness, 240 were for leaving an assigned post, 228 were for sleeping while on duty, 227 were for conviction of a misdemeanor, 205 were for falsifying state documents and 181 were for confrontations with other employees (both verbal and physical).
These numbers reflect a sharp increase in disciplinary violations among TDCJ staff, according to Backgate writer Marcus Williams.
As a result of the disciplinary actions, 538 employees were fired; there were also 51 demotions and 7 reductions in pay grade. More than 900 prison employees were suspended for varying periods of time, while 4,902 were placed on probation. 729 of the disciplinary charges were dismissed.
TDCJ employees who face being fired have the right to mediation. Of those who requested mediation, 211 had their dismissals overturned or modified. Just over 100 resigned during the mediation process, two resigned before being terminated and over 200 were fired.
The poor disciplinary performance of TDCJ employees can be blamed on a number of factors. Texas’ prison system has a severe staff shortage, so the TDCJ is not being very particular about who it hires. As of April 2008, state prisons were short 4,300 employees compared to authorized staffing levels, including 17 percent of security positions. Sixteen of the TDCJ’s 106 prisons operate with at least 1/4 staff vacancies.
The staff shortage, in turn, is blamed on an annual turnover rate of about 25% (43% for first-year hires according to AFSCME-CEC7, the union that represents many Texas prison guards). Why the high turnover rate? TDCJ officials speculate it is due to increased violence in the prison system. Indeed, both prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff assaults have risen in the past several years. Prisoner-on-staff assaults have increased 28% over 2001 levels, with 78 serious assaults on staff reported in 2007.
However, given that this averages less than 80 serious assaults on staff per year in a prison system with over 30,000 employees and more than 153,000 prisoners, these insignificant statistics don’t explain the staffing shortage.
A more likely culprit is low pay: Annual salaries for Texas prison guards start at $23,000, near the bottom of the national average. On March 27, 2008 the TDCJ approved a 10 percent emergency raise, which boosted starting salaries to $25,000, plus incentive bonuses for units that were the most difficult to staff. While this was a good start, it upset veteran prison employees who didn’t benefit from the pay increase.
Another reason for the high turnover rate is the understaffing itself. When prisons are understaffed employees have to work harder for their meager wages, including more overtime. This leads to work dissatisfaction, which leads to higher turnover, which leads to more understaffing – and thus a positive feedback cycle is created.
Additionally, many Texas prisons are located in rural communities with small labor pools – and with gas approaching $4.00 a gallon, few prospective prison employees are willing to commute. “The state built most of its prisons in all the wrong places,” observed state Sen. John Whitmore, who chairs the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. “They used prisons for economic development. The rural counties would give you the land and throw in other incentives. It might have looked like a bargain but we’re paying a huge price for it.”
Whatever its causes the TDCJ’s understaffing problem needs to be addressed. Due to the shortage of guards, many prisoners are being kept in their cells for long periods of time; this results in frustration and resentment, which may help to explain the very modest increase in prisoner assaults on staff. Staff assaults on prisoners are not addressed.
Beyond quantity, an increase in the quality of new TDCJ hires is also a necessity. In theory, a more professional workforce will result in a reduction in the number of disciplinary actions against prison employees.
Sources: www.itemonline.com, Dallas Morning News, Huntsville Item, Associated Press, www.thebackgate.org, San Antonio Express News
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login