Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Guards Fleeing Texas Prisons

by Matt Clarke

According to a March 2022 report published by the Texas State Auditor, the state Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has an extremely high staff turnover rate — 32.8%, compared to a 21.5% rate for all state employees in fiscal year 2021.

Within TDCJ, the rate for prison guards was higher still, at 40.3%. The state Juvenile Justice Department fared even worse, with a staff turnover rate of 47.2% and a rate for Juvenile Correctional Officers that came in at a whopping 71%.

At TDCJ, retirement triggered 10.5% of staff “separations.” Another 28.6% were “involuntary,” which was a 5% drop from the previous year. That left 7,270 people who simply quit — a 20% jump over 2020.

With a shortage of prison guards, the agency has resorted to mandatory overtime, often sending guards to prisons other than the one they’re assigned to. That increases employee discontent. Many prisons are curtailing prisoners’ recreational activities, causing discontent among the prison population that puts even more pressure on the remaining guards.

“They’re not getting that (recreation) and so they have a lot of pent-up frustration,” said a West Texas TDCJ guard who wished to remain anonymous. Understaffing, he added, also results in more contraband.

“You’re supposed to go in there (the cells) and check for contraband,” he said. “When you’re that low on staff, you really can just barely do all these things.”

The auditor’s report found that “poor working conditions” was among the top reasons people quit. That’s not surprising, since most Texas prisons are not air conditioned, and guards swelter alongside the prisoners in triple-digit heat every summer.

“These are not pleasant working conditions,” agreed Michele Deitch, a criminal justice professor at the University of Texas at Austin Law School. “These are facilities that tend to be located in the middle of nowhere, so it’s often hard to find people who want to work in those places.”

TDCJ increased guard pay 15% effective April 1, 2022, on top of a 3% pay hike in September 2021. Yet Jeff Ormsby, executive director of the Texas Correctional Employees Council, who is also a retired Texas prison guard, doesn’t think it will reduce the flight of prison guards. “I think the turnover rate is because of how staff are treated,” he said. “You can pay someone all the money in the world, but if they don’t feel like they’re appreciated they are going to quit.”

Ormsby also said TDCJ feels like a less safe place to work as the agency hires more inexperienced staff, “kids right out of high school.” As a result, he said, the response time for a call for backup has stretched from one minute 20 years ago to four or five minutes today. 

Additional source: KXAN

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login