People are escaping from the Austin County Jail in Texas. Not the prisoners, but the jailers. Low salaries and a lack of overtime compensation have driven jail staff away and led Austin County Sheriff Jack Brandes to close a new annex to the jail with 50 of the jail's beds, cancel prisoner work crews and refuse to accept prisoners charged with misdemeanors from the county’s municipalities. The excess prisoners are being sent to a jail in nearby Fort Bend County at a cost of $55 per prisoner per day.
"We don't have enough people to keep the new jail open," said Brandes, who noted that at least 16 jailers are required to operate the entire jail, but only 12 are needed to run the older, 27-bed section alone.
Brandes currently has 15 jailers, but two are still in training. They earn $32,879 per year. The problem is that surrounding counties pay more.
"Waller County flat pays more," Brandes said. "Washington County pays about what we do but they pay overtime. The reason people are leaving the jail is because of pay."
Waller County Chief Deputy Craig Davis confirmed that his jailers are paid $16.86 per hour for an annual salary of just over $35,000.
"It's quite a bit above what all of the smaller surrounding counties pay," said Davis who noted that he has almost eliminated jail staff turnover except for those being promoted to the department's patrol division.
An Austin County jailer must work 84 hours every two weeks. After an additional two hours, overtime kicks in, but County policy requires it be compensated for by comp time at the rate of one and a half hours per hour of overtime. Actually arranging the comp time is difficult due to the staffing shortages.
Austin County jail staff salaries are set by the county's commissioner’s court. County Judge Carolyn Bilski said county finances are strained with a limited revenue stream and the county will never be able to compete with the salaries offered by larger neighboring counties. Meanwhile, the Austin County Jail will continue to function as a de facto free training facility for the higher-paying counties as its trained and experienced employees seek better paying positions at jails in nearby counties.
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