Understaffing at Texas prisons and the implications for decarceration (Grits for Breakfast)

Understaffing at Texas prisons and the implications for decarceration


Your correspondent was quoted in a page one article in the Houston Chronicle today, "Mass exodus of Texas prison guards leaves some units understaffed," about guard shortages at Texas prisons, a topic that Grits has covered for many years. (The author, Keri Blakinger, is new to the Chronicle and the beat, so cut her a little slack for being late to the party; she got here as quickly as she could.)

Statewide, the turnover rate among prison guards was 28 percent last year, but at some units it was much higher.

County-by-county numbers show that staffing challenges can be highly localized and specific, as in the Texas Panhandle. Hartley and Dallam counties are not in an area particularly known for oil and gas, but a cheese factory in Dalhart has typically pulled away would-be prison workers, Henson said. 

The other two — Mitchell and Dawson counties — are in the oil-rich Permian Basin. 

"Whether people will work in prisons depends on hyperlocal economic conditions," Henson said. "A prison is someplace that you work as a job of last resort."

Here’s a map of the counties with the highest turnover rates among correctional officers:

State Sen. John Whitmire honed in on the fundamental problem:

"I believe in most instances we put the prisons in all the wrong places," said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chair of the Texas Senate’s criminal justice committee. "Some are located in communities that don’t even have housing available for the corrections officers."

Bingo! Many of Texas’ prisons were located in sparsely populated areas thanks to a failed Democratic electoral strategy from the Ann Richards era. Richards sought bond funding to expand prison capacity far beyond what was necessary to accommodate federal prison reform litigation (Ruiz v. Estelle). The idea was to promote prisons as rural jobs programs in areas which were depopulating and which historically had voted Democratic. But Democrats badly miscalculated. On that same 1994 ballot, voters gave a thumbs up to the prison bonds and a thumbs-down to Ann Richards.

Meanwhile, the reasons rural areas were depopulating did not change thanks to an influx of low-waged jobs nobody wants. And so now, at many of those locations, there aren’t enough warm bodies to fill the positions.

Closing units where staffing problems are most acute would make a lot of sense from TDCJ management perspective. But so far, prison units closed in Texas have been based on political considerations, sometimes including real estate interests that want to use the land for other stuff. But one can make the argument for reducing incarceration, say, of low-level drug possession offenders simply because it’s becoming dangerously difficult to guard them out in the middle of nowhere in a short-staffed and under-funded setting.

Save money. Increase liberty. Make the prison system safer. What’s not to like?

Almost seven years ago, Grits offered up a sort of decarceration manifesto at a time when Texas had never closed a prison since the founding of the Republic. Titled, "Six Impossible Things: Do you believe in a conservative, rational, and smaller corrections budget," I made these broad points (subheds to the article):

  1. Prison closures aren’t just possible but necessary
  2. Texas can safely incarcerate fewer low-risk nonviolent prisoners
  3. Incarcerating more people costs more money
  4. Community supervision is still punishment
  5. Releasing people is what prisons do, so we must do reentry better
  6. The prison bureaucracy is not the best judge of its own inefficiencies

With 20/20 hindsight – after Texas has reduced its prison population by nearly 10 percent and closed eight units – all of these "impossible things" turned out to be true, and they still are. Prison closures remain necessary because if we don’t reduce the number of prisoners and shutter more inmates, costs will escalate. Both Texas’ own experience and the examples of other states show #2 was correct, and #3 has always to me seemed self-evident, the Legislative Budget Board’s pro-enhancement posturing notwithstanding. And the public is prepared, in my estimation, to believe #6. But numbers 4 and 5 haven’t really bubbled up to the surface of public consciousness in the way one might like.

Regardless, Grits first began tracking the guard understaffing story because of its implications for decarceration and prison closures, and Ms. Blakinger’s reporting shows those underlying dynamics remain strongly in play. The prison system has an interest in reducing its size and the number of people it incarcerates for its own institutional reasons, independently of advocates seeking that outcome. That creates some interesting near-term possibilities as the Legislature faces another money-strapped session in 2019. A lot there to chew on.


via Grits for Breakfast http://bit.ly/2lPFl28

November 16, 2017 at 12:47PM