Proposed salary hikes would combat high Texas CO turnover

Proposal asks for around $107M over two years to raise CO pay scale from $43K to $47K

By Keri Blakinger
Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN, Texas — In an effort to stem the tide of correction officer turnover and tackle continuing vacancy problems, Texas prison officials are pitching a broader salary hike for guards in the state's 104 lockups.

On Friday, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice presented to the agency's board a proposal asking for nearly $170 million over two years to bump the upper end of the pay scale from roughly $43,000 to $47,000. Parole officers and and laundry and food service managers could see sizable pay hikes as well.

If passed, the proposal would bump officers' salaries from about $43K to $47K. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
If passed, the proposal would bump officers' salaries from about $43K to $47K. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

The request comes on the heels of changes to the lower end of the payscale amid 14 percent officer vacancy and 28 percent turnover rates, ongoing problems driven in part by strong oil and gas, a robust economy, difficult working conditions and the remote locations of prison facilities.

"The challenge has been the retention," said prison system Chief Financial Officer Jerry McGinty, when explaining the request to the prison board. "We continue to struggle with our retention."

Under the new plan, the starting salary for parole officers would increase from $39,700 to $43,690, and the maximum pay would move from $44,000 to $49,000. The changes come as part of a restructuring of the entire career ladder, which would create fewer steps and make each step "more meaningful," officials said.

The correction officers' union, which has previously criticized the department's narrow focus on beginning of the officer pay ladder, lauded the new request.

"AFSCME Texas Corrections Union has worked tirelessly in the past three legislative sessions to increase wages to improve retention in the agency," said local union president Sgt. Jaclyn Parsons, adding that the organization "applauds the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in recognizing the need to increase wages for correctional employees across the state."

Prison officials are also asking for more money to fix old units - a request to the tune of $146 million. The projects would include roof repairs, security fencing, kitchen renovation, wastewater and water improvements and other large-scale infrastructure repair at units across the state, some of which are more than 75 years old.

Some of the money will also help bump up security at existing air-conditioned units, in the hope of increasing the number of beds in cooled facilities. The attention to air-conditioned housing comes on the heels of a settlement in a federal class action suit over dangerous heat conditions at the Pack Unit in Navasota. Still, 75 of the state's prisons do not have air-conditioning in inmate living quarters.

If the prison system doesn't get the funding it needs for repairs, warned board vice-chairman R. Terrell McCombs, the aging infrastructure could create risks of its own.

"Eventually if we keep deferring and deferring it will become a public safety issue," he said.

Despite the large dollar figure - nearly three times the amount allotted in the current biennium - that funding request is only enough to address a fraction of the agency's infrastructure needs, officials said.

In recent months, the agency has struggled with finding companies interested in doing prison building and repair work.

"We are absolutely struggling to find bidders even to bid," McCombs said. "So this area is very, very critical and so maybe this $145 million will help some but we have more problems than that."

At least five projects have been shelved as officials have been unable to find bidders willing to offering affordable figures for the work, when better-paying contracts are available without the tight security restrictions of prison repair, prison officials added.

The nine-member appointed board oversees the state's prisons.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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