Prisons go begging for guards

AUSTIN — The Neal prison in Amarillo has so few guards working these days that Dorothy Barfoot, a correctional officer, often finds herself working alone in a dorm with 80 to 100 male felons.

Sometimes, she gets so scared that her knees shake.

“Usually, there should be two (additional correctional officers), at least,” the 13-year veteran said.

But the prison can’t find enough people to do the job of guarding inmates — in Amarillo or virtually anywhere else.

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 less 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 allotted guard positions.

The prison system has 34 percent fewer guards today than when seven Texas inmates pulled off a brazen escape at the Connally Uni t in South Texas in 2000 — when everyone acknowledged the system was in crisis — 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 March 27 approved a 10 percent emergency raise for all 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 prison guards earned the second-lowest guard salaries in the nation, according to the union that represents many state correctional officers, AFSCME-CEC7. The yearly turnover rate for first-year correctional staff is 43 percent.

The signing bonuses were a recognition that staffing shortages are as much about geography as about pay. 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, according to population figures.

Consider the Dalhart Unit, a 1,300-bed facility that operates with 31 percent of its correctional staff 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 AFSCME-CEC7 in the region that includes Dalhart, said the prison always is 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.

“Things are absolutely the worst I’ve seen ’em, and I’ve been (working in and around the prisons) since 1990,” Turner said.

Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who heads 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.”

Allan Polunsky served on the prison board between 1987 and 2000, when the prison population jumped from 49,000 inmates to 147,000. In an interview last month, Polunsky said he generally was opposed to building prisons in rural areas — but his board colleagues, and the rural lawmakers who wielded power back then, favored it.

“There certainly was political persuasion that came into place,” Polunsky said.

 He noted rural communities often lobbied as hard to bring prisons into their communities as metropolitan areas lobbied to keep them out.

The state built most of its correctional facilities for youths in remote places, too, and now faces chronic staffing shortages at many of those units. Whitmire champions closing the Texas Youth Commission altogether and moving its 2,800 juvenile offenders back to the mostly urban communities from which they come.

Whitmire said he has heard no talk of relocating the 106 prisons that house 153,000 adult inmates across the state.

“We have no choice,” he said of those facilities. “We’re stuck with them.”

Union leaders say the recent raises for newly hired guards may do nothing to ease the shortage because the fix largely ignores seasoned officers.

“They’ve created a big problem with the veterans. They’re raising cane. They’ve been the backbone of this agency,” said Brian Olsen, who heads the correctional officers union.

Meanwhile, officials in the most understaffed units have resorted to confining inmates in their pods for long stretches at a time, depriving them of work assignments and outdoor recreation.

Last fall, because of the staffing shortage, officials at the Dalhart Unit closed an entire 300-bed dorm. Michelle Lyons, a prison spokeswoman, said there were no plans to reopen it.




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