April 16, 2007
Chron covers the prison guard shortage

From Sunday's Chron:

As leading lawmakers disagree on whether the state needs to build new prisons, Texas can't fully staff the lockups it has now.

Some warn that a chronic shortage of correctional officers poses a danger.

"There's a public safety issue with the shortage," said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, Senate Criminal Justice Committee chairman and Finance Committee member. "I'm told where you need two (correctional officers), you've got one, and sometimes you have none. It means that the public is at risk of a breakout. It means you endanger corrections officers, and you potentially endanger inmates."

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice says it's committed to keeping its facilities secure despite having to deal with correctional officer vacancies totaling 12 percent, with some prisons having much greater shortages.

Officers work voluntary overtime and "we keep all the critical areas staffed," even when that means suspending some "nonessential" operations such as an offender craft shop, said department spokeswoman Michelle Lyons. "We are dedicated to offering safe prisons and secure prisons."

But fatigue can cause problems because offenders "wait for mistakes and shortfalls and use it against the officers at one point or another," said Floyd Smith, a 21-year veteran and second vice president of the Corrections Association of Texas. "Mistakes get made when you're tired."

Lawmakers haven't aimed the intense criticism at TDCJ that they have at the unfolding problems of the hugely troubled Texas Youth Commission.

But there's concern that the adult prison system had only 88 percent of its correctional officer positions filled at the end of February, with 3,152 vacancies. The prison in Dalhart had the biggest shortage, with 63 percent of its positions filled.

The turnover rate, meanwhile, rose from 20 percent in 2002 to 24 percent in 2006.

The agency "wants new prisons, and they can't run the ones they have now. You cannot sugarcoat it any more. You talk about TYC, you've got a crisis here in TDCJ," said correctional officer Jaye Hightower, a 15-year veteran and vice president of the Corrections Association of Texas.

"The difference between the two is that (in the adult system) you'll either have a massive escape that puts the public at risk, or a riot where many lives are lost and also putting the (corrections officers') lives at risk."

As with the TYC, rural locations, low salaries, and unpleasant working conditions are all contributing factors to the guard shortage, as is competition from the military. Remember also that Harris County has the same staffing problems for its jails, too.

I've blogged about this before, mostly taking a cue from Grits, who is the heavyweight champion of the prison system blues. Be sure to follow his links for more background on this. One item to note from the Chron's sidebar is that while Texas has a 12 percent vacancy rate for prison guards, the comparable stat for New York is less than one percent. What does New York know that Texas doesn't? (Here's a hint, if you're curious.)

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 16, 2007 to Crime and Punishment