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Texas prison staffing at 'crisis' level

By Derek Kravitz
The Dallas Morning News

RIVERSIDE, Texas Strike with your palms. Hit the chin, chest and lower abdomen. Kick if you have to.

It could save your life, the 22-year-old training sergeant tells a group of about 75 out-of-breath and generally unfit cadets at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Minnie Houston Training Center just north of Huntsville.

"This is going to buy you time for staff to reach you after you've been hit," says Sgt. Richard Rodenbeck.

Assaults on prison guards and staffers have doubled in the last five years, according to an analysis by The Dallas Morning News. And turnover at the second-largest prison system in the country is at a record level with one in four employees leaving the department last year. The TDCJ workforce was down 3,935 employees at the end of August.

Corrections department officials and prison experts blame the increase on everything from widespread staff shortages and low pay to a new breed of tougher criminals and prison overcrowding. There is one corrections officer for every 6.8 prisoners at TDJC facilities, where the inmate population is roughly 152,000, spokeswoman Michelle Lyons said.

The News' analysis of assaults at Texas prisons found inmate-on-guard attacks have gone up considerably in the last few years. More than three dozen staff assaults with weapons have been reported so far this year, up from just 18 in all of 2003.

And those don't include the higher number of offender-on-offender assaults that guards have to break up and police. More than 900 cases of inmates attacking inmates have also been reported this year, up more than 30 percent from 2002.

The death of 59-year-old corrections officer Susan Canfield in September highlighted long-echoed fears about prison guard safety. She was killed outside the Wynne Unit prison, just north of Huntsville.

Two inmates in prison for murder and attempted murder hijacked a truck and ran down Ms. Canfield, who was on horseback, killing her. Those two inmates, John Ray Falk, 40, and Jerry Martin, 37, were recaptured within hours of the escape.

At the time of Ms. Canfield's death, the Wynne Unit was at 78 percent of its desired staffing.

Ms. Lyons said that staffing levels at Wynne do not appear to have been a factor in the escape. Seven officers were supervising the inmates as they performed work duty on a 1,400-acre vegetable field. Other vulnerable areas of the facility were adequately staffed, she said.

But prison guard shortages and low pay are helping to create a full-scale "prison crisis," experts warn, that extends beyond whether a post is being manned.

Low salaries

Full-time salaries for Texas prison guards start at $23,040 a year and max out at $33,948 near the bottom of the scale nationally, prison guard unions and industry experts say. That drives away employees and drives up stress and overtime, they say.

"These staff shortages, and the pay, they're part of a larger problem," said Brian Olsen, deputy director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents about 4,000 workers. "This is a dangerous environment and, if you don't have the right resources, it creates obvious, possibly fatal, problems."

Maj. Troy Selman, who oversees the agency's training center near Huntsville, said budget cuts and exhausted applicant pools play a big part in the prison system's staff shortage.

"You have a high national rate of unemployment and, just like any other business, our applicant pool is small," Maj. Selman said.

In the 1980s, for example, the correctional officer ranks were filled with former oilfield workers, Maj. Selman said. Now, you're more likely to see baby-faced teenagers looking for a first job or mid-career hires filing in for prison guard training.

Many of the cadets enrolled in TDCJ's six-week training course are young 20-somethings looking for a first paycheck, training officers say.

Emmett Baugh, a 23-year-old training cadet from Donie, Texas, said he applied for the job to help pay for college tuition as he starts his sophomore year at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.

Despite the on-the-job risks, Mr. Baugh said, he's looking forward to his new job.

"It's not a long-term thing," Mr. Baugh said as he began a training exercise. "This is a well-paying job with good benefits. But I don't see myself doing this for more than a year."

Maj. Selman said that's a common refrain among new recruits.

The new breed of correctional officers just aren't willing to stick around long enough to learn the ins and outs of prison life, he said. And the decades-long "brain drain" is becoming a problem.

"It's definitely a different group of folks coming through the door," Maj. Selman said. "But we're preparing them better than we ever have before. With the changes, come adjustments."

Ms. Lyons said that to help offset staff shortages, the prison system suspends noncritical programs, such as community service projects and volunteer programs, and asks officers for voluntary overtime.

She said that the agency is "focused" on recruiting. And salary increases and bumps in hazardous duty pay this year should help attract new corrections officers.

Dr. J. Keith Price, a former correctional officer and warden of the Clements Unit in Amarillo and now a professor of history and criminology at West Texas A&M University, said those adjustments could spell trouble for overworked and underpaid guards.

"Even though you can say staffing is up to par, you're forgetting the relief factor," he said. "What happens is you begin taking shortcuts, abandoning less critical duty posts. That's when you wind up seeing mistakes happen."

Inherent dangers

A snapshot of a typical month in Texas prisons last March, for example provides a look at the dangers inherent in the job:

The Telford Unit in New Boston, Texas, went on lockdown in March after 62 inmates some using broken brooms, socks filled with dominoes and commissary hair gel and dented trash cans as weapons were found fighting in a dayroom at the facility. Corrections officers used blast dispersion and rubber ball grenades to quell the fight. Four inmates were injured.

Two weeks later, at the Beto Unit in Tennessee Colony, Texas, 17 inmates fought near their cells, resulting in two guard injuries. Nearly six ounces of Top Cop, a type of pepper spray foam, was used.

And in March at the Beto facility, a 19-year-old female guard was punched in the face by an inmate who had a nail hidden in his fist.

The guard suffered a gash on the left side of her face. The inmate 49-year-old T.J. Jones, who is serving a five-year sentence for burglary -- was transferred to another unit.

The all-male prison, which houses more than 3,300 inmates, has nearly 500 security guards, only a fraction of what the unit says it needs.

Since the spring incidents, the Beto unit has gone on periodic lockdown, which limits visitation and movement within the facility and restricts inmates to their cells for 23 hours a day.

"Essentially they're trying to be proactive," said Jason Clark, a TDCJ spokesman in Austin. "They've had some issues."

Copyright 2007 The Dallas Morning News

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