Understaffing in Texas Prisons

As I mentioned in the previous post, Steve’s prison is often understaffed, but it’s not the only one. There are a variety of reasons why people don’t want to work in prisons (low pay, potential danger, etc.). Shortages of staff can result in inmates going hungry and being less safe.

One of the reasons why the ratio of prison staff to inmates is so low is related to the way some prisons were established by the Texas legislature. At one point they decided that placing prisons in rural areas could be a sort of jobs program for communities that were declining in population. It didn’t work out that way. People left those communities anyway, and very few of the remaining residents wanted prison jobs. Even among those who take the jobs, the turnover rate is staggering (42% of new guards leave the job within the first year).

When prisons are understaffed, they don’t run smoothly. The guards have to work massive amounts of overtime, which isn’t conducive to them being able to approach the job with a clear head or with the amount of energy they need. Guards, and inmates are also more easily rattled when things don’t go the way they expect. It’s just human nature, and tired guards and underfed, frustrated inmates are a recipe for disaster. One extreme example of problems with staffing occurred at the Telford Unit in Northeast Texas. Here’s an article about what happened there and elsewhere around the state.

Shortages of staff create conditions that can lead to riots and danger for everyone at a unit, one result being increasingly low levels of morale for both guards and inmates. One of the inmates at Telford said, “This unit to me is like a bunch of dead souls.”

Telford got so bad that the TDCJ decided to move some of its inmates to other units. Steve’s unit was one of them. So his unit started housing more inmates, but no additional guards were brought on. Steve said that the result was an increase in Johnnies and a decrease in hot meals being served. Unless staffing problems are rectified, his unit and others around the state are in danger of becoming Telfords.

I’ve linked to a couple of other articles about understaffing below. The first one is from the Grits for Breakfast blog, which has been run by Scott Henderson for many years. He has been a tireless advocate for justice, working for The Innocence Project of Texas as well as other like-minded organizations. He is currently the policy director at Just Liberty, an organization dedicated to comprehensive criminal justice reform in Texas. They’re good people, working for a good cause. Check them out.

Here’s the Grits for Breakfast article:

And another one from the Houston Chronicle:

Have you ever had a job that required you to work an extra 24 hours a week in addition to your scheduled 48 hours? Would you have been able to perform at full capacity under those conditions in any job you’ve ever held, much less one that involved potential danger?

Michael Sirois

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