AUSTIN (KXAN) – The Texas Department of Criminal Justice saw significant turnover among correctional officers last year, according to a new report. Some say the staffing losses have created new challenges for remaining correctional officers. 

Texas had a 40.3% turnover rate for correctional officer positions in 2021, according to a 2022 report released by the Texas State Auditor’s Office. The turnover rate for officers increased by almost 7% between 2020 and 2021.

Jeff Ormsby, executive director of the Texas Correctional Employees Council and a retired Texas prison correctional officer, said that understaffing within Texas prisons is making a difficult job even harder. 

“Correctional officers walk the toughest beat,” he said. “Every person that you come across in a unit is a convicted felon.”

The prison system is aware of the staffing issues within its facilities, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice told KXAN.

“Recruiting and retaining correctional officers remains the agency’s biggest challenge and our highest priority,” TDCJ said in an email. 

One West Texas TDCJ correctional officer said that understaffing in the prison he works in has prevented officers in his unit from consistently performing standard procedures, such as providing inmates with recreation time. The correctional officer agreed to speak with KXAN anonymously to protect his employment and because he is not authorized to speak to the media. 

“They’re not getting that (recreation) and so they have a lot of pent-up frustration,” he said. “It’s easy to go from zero to one hundred over a pair of boxers because the guys haven’t gotten any recreation time over the past few days.”

He said staffing limitations have made it more difficult for officers in his unit to search for drugs and contraband within prisoners’ cells.  

“You’re supposed to go in there (the cells) and check for contraband,” he said. “When you’re that low on staff, you really can just barely do all these things.”

‘It’s hard to find people who want to work in these places’

Michele Deitch, a criminal justice professor at the University of Texas at Austin Law School, said there are many reasons officers are leaving the profession. 

“It’s a position that is underpaid. These are not pleasant working conditions, and it’s often an unsafe environment,” she said. “These are facilities that tend to be located in the middle of nowhere, so it’s often hard to find people who want to work in those places.”

The staffing shortages have been exacerbated by the availability of higher-paying jobs near prisons, Deitch said. 

“The agency is competing against other jobs that may offer higher wages, including the oil and gas industry,” she said. “So there’s not a huge pool of people to call on to work in these spaces”

TDCJ said the pandemic has amplified these problems.

“Before COVID-19, staffing was frequently impacted by economic surges and competing employment opportunities,” TDCJ wrote. “The pandemic has exacerbated these issues.”

TDCJ implemented a 15% pay increase for all correctional officers beginning April 1. The raise was projected to be seen in most officers’ May 1 paychecks. This is on top of the 3% pay increase officers in maximum-security facilities saw in September 2021. 

Still, Ormsby doesn’t think the pay increase will be enough to keep staff from leaving. He said that, although numerous issues have caused the staffing turnover in Texas prisons, the biggest problem he sees is how correctional staff are treated by the state. 

“I think the turnover rate is because of how staff are treated,” Ormsby said. “You can pay someone all the money in the world, but if they don’t feel like they’re appreciated they are going to quit.”

The West Texas officer said he feels his facility has started hiring more inexperienced staff than when he started at TDCJ, making him feel less safe on the job. 

“When I first started, you had to have relevant security experience. Now, they’re hiring kids right out of high school,” he said. 

The officer said that when he entered the profession over 20 years ago he was trained to fend off an attack from an inmate for a minute while he waited for backup from his fellow officers. Now, he thinks he would have to wait much longer for a response. 

“If there was an occasion where an inmate did assault an officer with the intent to harm, my guess is that it would be a three, four, and depending on the quality of staff, even a five-minute wait before somebody could get over here,” he said. 

He said the risk of violence has made him more cautious when confronting inmates.

“It makes you more diplomatic when you’re dealing with them,” he said. “For me, it just means that I’m going to escalate everything to a supervisor. I’m not going to try to push my way around.”

TDCJ denied that staffing shortages had changed the interactions between inmates and staff or that they have been hiring less experienced staff than in previous years. 

Obligations to the State  

The West Texas officer said the staffing shortage means that officers from his unit have had to work overtime, sometimes in facilities across the state.

“They’re making us do six extra days each month,” the officer said. 

The West Texas officer said the extra work is adding to the stress on officers. 

“If you want to ruin the atmosphere or the attitude of a shift, tell them: ‘We have to get people to go off to Amarillo,’” he said. “Boy, you’ll turn a good group of staff into an aggravated, angry group of staff real quick.”

TDCJ denied officers were being asked to take on more overtime than in previous years.

Ormsby said many correctional officers are single parents and might have issues finding child care while working at facilities away from home.

“They have obligations to their family,” he said. “They also have obligations to the state.”

He believes that state prisons should provide child care for officers that have to travel for work. 

“Those officers will be more willing to travel knowing they can take their child with them,” he said.  

TDCJ does not currently provide any options for child care.

“These are personal decisions for employees and their families,” TDCJ told KXAN in an email. 

TDCJ told KXAN they offer a 3% pay increase when officers work outside of their home facility. 

Ormsby said the only way to avoid overscheduling existing correctional officers is to fix the greater staffing issue.

“Mandatory overtime is a beast that cannot be slain, until we get the other issues fixed,” he said. “Until we get to where we can attract and retain quality employees and get these vacancy numbers down, you’re not going to fix the mandatory overtime issue.”

Deitch said there isn’t a singular solution to the staffing problems in Texas prisons.

“It’s something that has to be dealt with in a very holistic way,” she said. “It’s an issue that’s absolutely central to the wellbeing of both people who are incarcerated and the people who work in these facilities.”

The West Texas officer said, if prisons can’t hire more staff, then they need to increase the quality of candidates that they recruit.

“If you’re going to have someone do a job that used to be done by two or three people then you need a better employee,” he said.