Low Pay, High Staff Turnover Drive Texas Prison Guard Shortage
by Matthew Clarke
Of the 26,000 guards who work in Texas’ 104 state prisons, 28 percent left their jobs in 2017 – an increase from the prior year’s 22.8 percent turnover rate and “the highest in recent memory,” according to Bryan Collier, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). The high rate of staff attrition was accompanied by an inability to fill 3,930 open guard positions, resulting in a peak vacancy rate of 15.22 percent in April 2018.
Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) cast the TDCJ’s staffing problems in stark relief. Nationally, the unemployment rate was 3.8 percent in May 2018, while the job turnover rate was 4 percent. But some state prisons saw turnover rates as high as 59 percent.
The TDCJ breaks down its employment data by counties, not by facilities, and three counties had turnover rates exceeding 50 percent. Two were in the oil-rich Permian Basin near the New Mexico border, where an oil and fracking boom that began in 2012 has been competing for workers. Even as the boom abated in 2017, alternative employment opportunities – like a new cheese factory near the TDCJ’s Dalhart Unit – continued to crop up.
“Historically, the [prison staffing] challenge has been greatest when the Texas economy is growing and unemployment is low,” said Collier.
He blamed the staffing problems on the TDCJ’s pay scale, which he said is too low to compete for hiring new guards and reducing the turnover rate. The TDCJ recently raised its starting salary for guards to around $36,000, but the pay scale still tops out at $43,000 after seven years, which doesn’t help to lower staff turnover.
“We are glad to see TDCJ working to address the ongoing understaffing and turnover issues,” said Tanisha Woods, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents Texas prison guards. “We believe that an across-the-board pay increase for all employees and extending the career ladder to reward those that have served the state for more than eight years are necessary to fully deal with these issues.”
At 29 TDCJ facilities, including the Polunsky Unit, which houses death row, new guards earn recruitment bonuses of $4,000 to $5,000, bumping their equivalent hourly rate above $19. Yet the Polunsky Unit is in the Houston metro area, where non-farm jobs pay an average of almost $26 per hour according to the BLS. As of August 2018, the TDCJ had paid over $9 million in hiring bonuses.
“There’s probably no aspect of prison operations that’s more important to safety than appropriate levels of staffing,” stated Michele Deitch, an attorney and senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin.
TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel agreed that adequate staffing is important to prison safety, especially for employees. But he stressed the department has not been able to prove a correlation between staffing levels and the prevalence of prisoner-on-staff assaults.
By far the largest number of assaults on staff have occurred at the maximum-security Telford Unit in northeastern Texas, where 200 guard positions remained unfilled – a vacancy rate of nearly 35 percent as of April 2018. Desel said the TDCJ had begun moving about 400 of the prison’s 2,500 men to other state facilities to provide staff some relief. In 2015, Telford guard Timothy Davison, 47, was assaulted and killed by Billy Joel Tracy, a prisoner serving two life sentences. [See: PLN, July 2016, p.63; Oct. 2015, p.63].
Sgt. Lance Lowry, a prison guard in Huntsville and former union president, blamed the TDCJ’s staffing problems on decisions made in the 1990s, when 75 new state prisons were built in mostly remote areas with small populations.
“State leadership doled out prisons as economic stimulus for rural communities, but the pay was never there to attract staff to sufficiently maintain these units,” he noted.
That has created something of a Catch-22 for the TDCJ. If it locates facilities in larger metropolitan areas, it has to pay higher salaries to successfully compete for workers. In more rural areas, though, there may not be enough people willing to work in the low-pay, stressful prison environment.
“I don’t know how many people from Dallas or Houston want to move to New Boston, Texas,” Lowry said.
“I believe in most instances we put the prisons in all the wrong places,” agreed state Senator John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee. “Some are located in communities that don’t even have housing available for the correctional officers.”
At the Ferguson Unit, not far from Lowry’s workplace in Huntsville, a 25 percent guard vacancy rate meant few officers were present when a teacher, Nicole Truelove, was raped by a prisoner in November 2017.
“The correctional officers assigned to the educational unit left the educational unit while the trustee inmate released all the classes leaving not only myself, but four other teachers alone, in the educational unit, with all the inmates,” she said.
Additionally, former Telford guards described “shortcuts,” such as skipping strip searches before moving dangerous prisoners, or failing to fully secure handcuffs and have two guards present, as required by policy, when moving high-security prisoners. The latter two lapses were cited as contributing factors in Timothy Davison’s murder.
TDCJ prisoner Omar Edwards, who has spent 25 years in nine different Texas prisons, said problems with morale and leadership make Telford a particularly bad place to do time.
“This unit to me is like a bunch of dead souls,” he said. “The officers I’m talking to, they’re not quitting because of offenders, they’re quitting because of administration.”
The low pay and remote job locations don’t help either – nor does the fact that most TDCJ facilities are not air conditioned, which means guards, like prisoners, have to work in scorching conditions during the Texas summer months.
As of August 2018, the TDCJ’s guard vacancies stood at 3,675 – a slight reduction, but still extremely high and an indication the problem is far from being solved.
Sources: Houston Chronicle, Texas Tribune, San Antonio Express-News, U.S. News & World Report, www.afscme.org, www.bls.gov, www.mystatesman.com, www.abc13.com