Staff turnover in Texas prisons has increased. Here’s how it affects correctional officers | KETK.com
AUSTIN (KXAN) – The Texas Department of Criminal Justice experienced significant turnover among correctional officers last year, according to a new report. Some say the staff losses have created new challenges for the remaining corrections officers.
Texas had a 40.3% turnover rate for correctional officer positions in 2021, according to a report 2022 released by the Texas State Auditor’s Office. The officer turnover rate increased by almost 7% between 2020 and 2021.
Jeff Ormsby, executive director of the Texas Correctional Employees Council and a retired Texas prison corrections officer, said understaffing in Texas prisons makes hard work even harder.
“Correctional officers walk the hardest pace,” he said. “Everyone you meet in a unit is a convicted felon.”
The prison system is aware of staffing issues at its facilities, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice told KXAN.
“The recruitment and retention of correctional officers remains the agency’s greatest challenge and our highest priority,” TDCJ said in an email.
A West Texas TDCJ corrections officer said understaffing at the jail he works in has prevented officers in his unit from consistently enforcing standard procedures, such as providing inmates with recreation time . The corrections officer agreed to speak anonymously to KXAN to protect his job and because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
“They don’t get that (recreation) and so they have a lot of pent up frustration,” he said. “It’s easy to go from zero to one hundred on a pair of boxers because the guys haven’t had playtime the last few days.”
He said staffing limitations have made it more difficult for officers in his unit to search prisoners’ cells for drugs and contraband.
“You’re supposed to go there (the cells) and check for contraband,” he said. “When you’re understaffed, you can barely do all those things.”
“It’s hard to find people who want to work in these places”
Michele Deitch, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Texas at Austin Law School, said there are many reasons officers leave the profession.
“It’s an underpaid position. These are not pleasant working conditions and it is often a dangerous environment,” she says. “These are facilities that tend to be in the middle of nowhere, so it’s often difficult to find people who want to work in those places.”
Staffing shortages have been exacerbated by the availability of better-paying jobs near prisons, Deitch said.
“The agency competes with other jobs that may offer higher salaries, including the oil and gas industry,” she said. “So there’s not a huge pool of people to call in to work in these spaces”
TDCJ said the the pandemic has amplified these problems.
“Before COVID-19, staffing was frequently affected by economic surges and competing employment opportunities,” the TDCJ wrote. “The pandemic has exacerbated these issues.”
TDCJ has set up a 15% salary increase for all correctional officers starting April 1. The increase was expected to be seen in most agents’ paychecks as of May 1. It’s above 3% salary increase in officers in maximum security institutions noted in September 2021.
Yet Ormsby does not think salary increase enough to prevent staff from leaving. He said that while many issues have caused staff turnover in Texas prisons, the biggest problem he sees is how correctional staff are treated by the state.
“I think the turnover rate is down to how staff are treated,” Ormsby said. “You can pay someone all the money in the world, but if they don’t feel like they’re going to quit.”
The West Texas officer said he believes his facility has started hiring more inexperienced staff than when he started at TDCJ, making it less safe to work.
“When I started, you had to have relevant security experience. Now they hire kids right out of high school,” he said.
The officer said that when he entered the profession more than 20 years ago, he was trained to fend off an attack from an inmate for one minute while awaiting reinforcement from fellow officers. Now he thinks he should wait much longer for an answer.
“If there was an occasion where an inmate assaulted an officer with intent to harm, I guess it would be a three, four, and depending on the quality of staff, even a five-minute wait before someone can recover. here,” he said.
He said the risk of violence made him more cautious of inmates.
“It makes you more diplomatic when dealing with them,” he said. “For me, that just means I’m going to escalate everything to a supervisor. I’m not going to try to push my way through.
The TDCJ denied that the staff shortages had altered interactions between inmates and staff or that they had hired less experienced staff than in previous years.
Obligations to the State
The West Texas officer said personnel shortages meant officers in his unit had to work overtime, sometimes at facilities across the state.
“They make us do six extra days every month,” the officer said.
The West Texas officer said the extra work was adding to officers’ stress.
“If you want to spoil the vibe or the attitude of a shift, tell them, ‘We need to get people out of Amarillo,'” he said. “Boy, you will turn a good group of employees into an aggravated and angry group of employees very quickly.”
The TDCJ denied that officers were being asked to work more overtime than in previous years.
Ormsby said many correctional officers are single parents and may have trouble finding child care when working in facilities far from home.
“They have obligations to their family,” he said. “They also have obligations to the state.”
He believes state prisons should provide child care for officers who have to travel for work.
“These officers will be more willing to travel knowing they can take their child with them,” he said.
TDCJ does not currently offer any childcare options.
“These are personal decisions for employees and their families,” TDCJ told KXAN in an email.
TDCJ told KXAN that they offer a 3% pay raise when agents work away from their home establishment.
Ormsby said the only way to avoid overburdening existing correctional officers is to address the staffing issue.
“Compulsory overtime is a beast that cannot be killed until we address the other issues,” he said. “Until we can attract and retain quality employees and reduce the number of vacancies, you will not solve the problem of compulsory overtime.”
Deitch said there is no one-size-fits-all solution to staffing issues in Texas prisons.
“It’s something that needs to be dealt with very holistically,” she said. “This is an absolutely central issue for the well-being of incarcerated people and the people who work in these establishments.
The West Texas officer said if prisons can’t hire more staff, then they need to increase the quality of the candidates they recruit.
“If you want someone to do a job that used to be done by two or three people, you need a better employee,” he said.