As leading Texas lawmakers disagree on whether the state needs new prisons, it can’t fully staff the lockups it has now. “There’s a public safety issue with the shortage,” said Sen. John Whitmire, Senate Criminal Justice Committee chairman. “I’m told where you need two (guards), you’ve got one, and sometimes you have none. It means that the public is at risk of a breakout. It means you endanger corrections officers, and you potentially endanger inmates.”
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice must deal with correctional officer vacancies totaling 12 percent, with some prisons having much greater shortages. Officers work voluntary overtime and “we keep all the critical areas staffed,” even when that means suspending some “nonessential” operations such as an offender craft shop, said department spokeswoman Michelle Lyons. “We are dedicated to offering safe prisons and secure prisons.” Fatigue can cause problems because offenders “wait for mistakes and shortfalls and use it against the officers at one point or another,” said Floyd Smith, a 21-year veteran and second vice president of the Corrections Association of Texas. “Mistakes get made when you’re tired.” The turnover rate rose from 20 percent in 2002 to 24 percent in 2006. Among chief reasons cited for the shortages are the prison locations in rural areas away from big labor pools, and staff salaries that don’t adequately compensate for a tough job.