Texas Prison Population Drops as Guard Shortage Persists
by Matt Clarke
In spite of a three-year downward trend, Texas continues to lead the nation with the largest state prison population. At the same time, the state has pursued a variety of incentives to address a chronic shortage of prison guards.
The population of the 109-facility Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) fell from about 156,500 prisoners in mid-2011 to just over 154,000 in mid-2012, then to around 150,400 by November 2014 – including both TDCJ prisons and state jails. [See: PLN, Nov. 2013, p.26].
Regardless, Texas still leads the nation in terms of state prison populations because it did not reduce its population as quickly as the former leading state, California. California’s prison population declined from over 160,000 to around 134,000 by diverting non-violent prisoners to county jails to comply with a federal court order to reduce the state’s badly overcrowded prison system. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.1].
“It’s real. It’s happening, not only in Texas, but around the country,” said Austin-based criminal justice consultant Tony Fabelo, who, as head of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council, advised state officials during the tripling of the TDCJ’s prison bed capacity in the 1990s. “The challenge is to sustain the outcomes to see how far you can go in downsizing prisons. I have my doubts, but it’s an interesting time for criminal justice.”
The Texas Legislative Budget Board also had its doubts. In June 2012, the board released a report predicting that the drop in the state’s prison population would continue only until 2014, and that by 2015 the number of prisoners could again exceed TDCJ’s capacity.
Analysts trace the recent decline in Texas’ prison population to the success of a variety of alternative sentencing initiatives. For example, a package of sentencing reforms passed by the state legislature in 2007 allowed defendants to be diverted from prison into rehabilitative programs. Those reforms, combined with an aging state population, a decrease in the crime rate and changes in demographics, allowed the prison population to shrink even while Texas experienced an increase in its general population.
The 2007 legislative reforms were driven by Republicans who pushed fiscal conservatism over previous tough-on-crime and lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key political philosophies.
“Policies in various states are finally catching up with what we know works,” stated Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice and a national leader in the Right on Crime campaign for smarter criminal justice solutions.
“For most nonviolent offenders, community-based initiatives are much cheaper and have much better outcomes,” Levin said. “In this time of tight budgets and programs that work, this is the conservative thing to do.”
The reforms in Texas included special courts established in large cities for cases involving drugs, veterans, drunk driving and prostitution. Courts now offer programs and intensive supervision aimed at changing defendants’ lives without sending them to prison.
Concurrently, the state expanded treatment programs for prisoners and upgraded parole supervision with electronic monitoring and newly-developed risk assessment tools. According to the TDCJ’s Statistical Report for fiscal year 2013, 114,225 offenders were on some type of parole or community supervision.
An emphasis on community-based probation for non-violent defendants resulted in a higher success rate for both adults and juveniles, which proved so successful that the Texas Youth Commission (now the Texas Juvenile Justice Department) was able to close half the state’s juvenile facilities.
“We’re definitely going to look at what works and what doesn’t – and we know that treatment and rehabilitation and community justice programs work,” said state Senator John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice and sponsored many of the 2007 reforms.
“Prisons should be reserved for the worst of the worst, the violent criminals, murderers, child molesters we should definitely be afraid of. We have a lot of other inmates who could probably be housed someplace else, at less cost,” Whitmire said.
The 2007 legislative reforms did little to benefit prisoners who were already incarcerated when the new laws were enacted, however, because they were designed to divert offenders away from prison, not release them.
But if the Texas Legislative Budget Board’s prediction comes true and the number of prisoners begins to increase, the state could face an even worse shortage of guards to man its correctional facilities. To keep that from happening, state officials have offered a number of incentives to attract new recruits to shore up prison staffing levels.
A resurgent Texas economy – especially in the oil and gas industry – has led to many vacancies among guard ranks. “With energy production increasing dramatically in South and East Texas, most [prison guards] can make twice as much in the energy sector,” explained Lance Lowry, head of Local 3807 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents Texas prison guards.
“We can’t compete with the private sector in these critical areas,” admitted Bill Stevens, director of the TDCJ’s correctional institutions division.
In January 2014, TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston approved increasing the recruiting bonus to $4,000 for new guards who sign one-year contracts and agree to work at one of 15 understaffed facilities located in rural areas, or in areas where jobs are available in the oil and gas industry.
“The recruitment and retention of correctional officers is a top priority for the agency,” TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark wrote in an email to the Huntsville Item. “The recruitment bonus is another tool the agency is using to attract applicants to apply for positions at units that are facing staffing challenges. We understand that the correctional officer position is one of the most demanding jobs in all of state government.”
The TDCJ also recruits new guards at job fairs. “It’s a rewarding career to be a correctional officer,” explained Earl Brown, a TDCJ representative who attended three job fairs in November 2013. “We’re trying to get as many applicants as we can who are qualified.”
Brown said prison guard salaries range from $2,435 to $3,250 per month, with more for applicants who hold a Bachelor’s degree or have at least two years of active military service. “The salary is competitive. We have great benefits,” he added.
But union president Lowry blasted Texas lawmakers for treating guards “as the ugly stepchild of the criminal justice system” when negotiating a 2013 pay hike. In a press release, Lowry faulted the legislature for granting guards a 5% raise over two years while other state law enforcement officers received 10%. He said actual take-home pay grew only slightly more than 1% in September 2013 due to an accompanying increase in the amount that TDCJ employees pay towards retirement.
The fact that many top TDCJ administrators received higher raises – ranging from 8 to 23% – did not help alleviate discontent among the prison system’s rank-and-file.
Lowry also blamed lawmakers for “being unrealistic on their [sic] attempt to address chronic staffing demands now in the thousands,” and said he expected staffing at TDCJ facilities “to only get worse.”
As another way to reduce high turnover rates among prison guards, the TDCJ is currently making mobile home parks and dorm housing available at certain prisons that guards can rent at reduced rates, to counter the boom-town explosion in rental costs near oil and gas fields.
As of November 2014, the TDCJ had more than 3,300 vacant guard positions.
Sources: Austin American-Statesman, www.mcclatchydc.com, www.correctionsone.com, http://gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com, www.kxii.com, The New York Times
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