The state prison guard shortage

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

The Texas prison system is short more than 4,300 guards, with 17 percent of its full-time security positions unfilled. Nearly one in five of the state’s 106 prisons operates with fewer than 75 percent of its correctional guards.

Far-flung Fort Stockton, the worst-staffed unit, operates with 59 percent of its correctional officers.

Barfoot’s lockup in Amarillo operates with 76 percent of its alloted guard positions.

The prison system has 34 percent fewer guards today than when seven Texas inmates pulled off an escape at the Connally Unit in South Texas in 2000, even though its inmate population has grown 5 percent since then, to 153,000.

Testifying before a legislative hearing last month, Texas Prison Board Chairman Brad Livingston called the guard shortage “critical.”

To deal with the shortage, the prison board recently approved a 10 percent emergency raise for new employees, bringing starting salaries to $25,000 a year and $1,500 signing bonuses for those taking jobs at the hardest-to-staff units.

The raises were an attempt to address the fact that Texas guards earned the second-lowest salaries in the nation, according to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The Chron wrote a very similar story almost exactly a year ago. There is, of course, a way to alleviate this problem that won’t cost the state any money; indeed, it will save millions of dollars a year. I think we all know what that is, don’t we? We just need the Legislature and Governor Perry to take the problem seriously enough to do it. No, I’m not holding my breath in anticipation.

One more thing:

Texas prisons were built in some of the most out-of-the-way areas of the state.

Thirteen of the 15 prisons with the most severe guard shortages are in towns with fewer than 15,000 people.

Nine of those places have lost, not gained, residents since 2000.

Consider the Dalhart Unit, a 1,300-bed facility that operates with 31 percent of its correctional staff positions unfilled and is located in a remote Panhandle town of the same name with 7,000 residents.

Marty Turner, a field representative with the union in the region that includes Dalhart, said the prison is always short-staffed because it has a tiny work force to draw from.

“There’s no help,” he said. Skyrocketing gas prices have made it difficult to lure people to commute from distant towns, he said.

A shortage of affordable housing keeps them away.

State Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, said he blamed the staffing problems squarely on decisions made during the massive prison building boom of the 1990s to put most of the units in far-flung locations.

“The state built most of its prisons in all the wrong places,” he said. “They used prisons for economic development. The rural counties would give you the land and throw in other incentives. It might have looked like a bargain, but we’re paying a huge price for it.”

Well, given that this has been an utter failure both as a matter of public policy as well as for the stated rationale of economic development, perhaps we ought to consider closing some of these expensive yet wasteful and inefficient prison units. You’d think the self-professed fiscal conservative types would be all over this, but for some reason this issue is never on their radars. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

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