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Too Many Prisoners, Not Enough Guards Cause Crisis in Texas

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) confirmed on January 9, 2008 that an entire wing on the Dalhart Unit was being closed indefinitely. Nearly 300 prisoners were transferred throughout the prison system because the unit had been dangerously short-staffed for months. Records show that Dalhart had been operating at just over 60 percent of its normal staffing requirements since September, 2007.

Other Texas prison units also were troubled by staff shortages. Beto Unit, in North Texas, shuffled 282 of its administrative segregation prisoners and filled the ad-seg housing blocks with minimum custody prisoners. This “repurposing” relieved shortages that had the facility operating at around 66 percent of its staffing level.

TDCJ spokesperson Michelle Lyons said the closure of the Dalhart wing addressed “an area where we had chronic shortage of staff. [But] we haven’t closed that wing [on Beto]. There are still inmates there.”

Nevertheless, Lyons’ comments weren’t reassuring. The same day TDCJ officials confirmed the wing closure in Dalhart, a group of TDCJ employees publicly voiced their concerns about system wide staff shortages. “The situation is serious. It’s very scary right now,” said William Cook, a guard at the Polunsky Unit.

Senator John Whitmire, chairman of the legislative prison oversight committee, agreed. “When we reach the point where we’re shutting down [prison] beds, it’s no longer a problem; it would be accurate to label this a crisis.” Sen. Whitmire went on to say, “Because of this chronic shortage we’ve had to lower our hiring standards.... We’re now taking 18-year-olds just a few months out of high school; we’re hiring 70 plus-year-old guards and others who are physically not able to protect themselves or others.”

“We’ll take almost anyone who signs up,” he said, frankly.

The situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon. Pay rates for Texas guards are among the lowest of the low. Of 16 Southern states, Texas ranks third from the bottom; salaries for prison guards start at $23,000 a year and max out at $34,000 after eight years. Guards sometimes work 12-hour shifts and moonlight at other units to supplement their income.

“Will more money help? Absolutely,” said Lyons. Additional funds that were allocated to address the staffing problem are inadequate, however, and may have actually decreased morale. In May 2008 the TDCJ provided 10 percent emergency raises for new hires, boosting starting salaries to $25,400 per year, plus signing bonuses at units with chronic staff shortages. However, veteran employees didn’t receive a salary increase, resulting in discontent among the rank and file.

Meanwhile, the staffing crisis, which has been a matter of concern for the past year, is only getting worse. Dalhart managed to increase its staffing ratio to 70 percent by closing one wing. However, other units are even more short-handed and have fewer options. As of Nov. 30, 2007, the Wallace Unit in Colorado City was at 64 percent of its staffing level, as was the Ferguson Unit. The Coffield Unit was at about 62 percent, while Fort Stockton hovered around 58 percent.

On June 4, 2008, the TDCJ announced it was closing a 334-bed wing at the Lynaugh Unit, as there weren’t enough employees to properly staff the facility. TDCJ executive director Brad Livingston admitted during a joint Senate-House hearing that the lack of prison guards was “the greatest challenge we currently face.”

It was also disclosed that the low wages paid to TDCJ staff made them more susceptible to bribery by prisoners seeking cell phones or other contraband. “For seasoned correctional officers who take home just $1,900 a month, who are being overworked in an increasingly dangerous environment and having trouble making ends meet, the temptation is great,” said Sen. Whitmire.

Another problem with understaffing is that prisoners can spend days or even weeks locked in their cells eating sack lunches for every meal because there are not enough employees on hand to run the chow hall. Recreation, education and rehabilitation programs are cancelled. The resulting stress can cause some prisoners to lash out. [See: PLN, June 2008, p.12].

The union representing state prison guards warned legislators in a letter that “real concerns [exist] about the safety and well-being of our prison agency. In recent years, we have grown increasingly shorter and shorter in our staffing, all the time encountering more and more violent offenders.”

While TDCJ claims to be operating at around 83 percent of staffing capacity statewide, news reports indicate the prison system has a shortage of 4,300 guards. This is the first time since the mid-1990s that Texas has faced such a shortage of prison staff. At that time, the state was in the middle of a massive expansion that tripled the size of its prison capacity. New prison guard trainees were plentiful due to high unemployment under then-Gov. George W. Bush’s administration.

Today, however, the days of plenty are over, attests Sen. Whitmire. “We built a lot of these prisons in rural areas, and when oil is $100 a barrel, anyone who can drive a truck can make more doing that than working in a prison. I don’t know that we can increase the salaries enough to fill all these vacant positions.” The folly of using prisons as a tool of economic development is now readily apparent as the same towns who once clamored for prisons cannot support them because few people want to live in remote, economically depressed, jobless towns, even if they do have a prison with low paying jobs.

Texas now supports 112 prison units that house almost 156,000 prisoners, which includes state jails. Since the TDCJ seems unable to fill vacant prison jobs, perhaps it’s time to start emptying some of those prison beds.

Sources: Austin American-Statesman, Houston Chronicle

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