AUSTIN (Nexstar) — This week, the Travis County Commissioners Court will weigh whether to hire a marketing firm for $250,000 to help the Travis County Sheriff’s Office fill current vacancies.

That includes 145 corrections officer vacancies, up from only 60 vacancies before the pandemic in May of 2019. Additionally, the jail population has increased by 60 inmates this May compared to that same May of 2019, now up to 2,173.

In total, the county is down 164 corrections officer since 2019 because the county also decided to cut some corrections officer positions in addition to the 145 current vacancies.

It’s putting a strain on the workforce as the county grapples with staffing shortages hitting multiple other industries, too.

“Unfortunately for us, we’re not like a restaurant, we can’t close early. We are not like a corporation that can back off operations and move things to accommodate. We don’t get to stop any operations. We don’t get to scale back at all, we have to continue to do business as usual, which means we have to have our employees do mandatory overtime,” Kristen Dark, a spokesperson for TCSO, said Monday.

“At times, we have deputies who still have their jailers license who come into the jail and pick up shifts. We have deputies and jailers, who work in perhaps the courthouse or transportation, and they’re coming in and picking up extra shifts,” Dark continued.

The problem is compounded by other agencies with staffing shortages of their own, which is contributing to a higher jail population.

“The fact that state hospitals are not accepting inmates at the rate they were before because they have staffing shortages, so we have inmates who are mentally ill who can’t leave our custody. We also are experiencing inmates who have been sentenced, and who are ready to go into the Texas prison system. And we’re not able to transfer them yet because the staff shortages at the prison are keeping them from being accepted in,” Dark explained.

Tuesday, the county will discuss hiring an outside marketing firm to help fill some of the vacancies at the jail.

“We’re going to work with a marketing company and try to find our target audience and communicate with them directly. We’re going to reach beyond the Austin Metroplex and see if we can start attracting people from smaller towns around Texas, and kind of figure out who our audience is and how to connect with them, and then let it let them know about us and the opportunities we have,” Dark said.

The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas said increasing marketing could help, but thinks offering a better-defined career ladder could also help recruit corrections officers.

“Now, the correction officer role in the state’s law enforcement is at the lowest on the totem pole. So you’re either young and see a way out as just as a temporary job, or it’s a second job for the family,” Charley Wilkison, CEO of CLEAT, said Monday. “Those officers have to have a career path.”

Wilkison said CLEAT has proposed similar measures to the state legislature in the past but has failed.

“Recruiting is the solution, and trying to raise standards so that it’s a meaningful job, that it’s a forever career path that someone can stay with and promote up inside the Travis County Jail and remain there their entire career,” Wilkison continued.

Wilkison explained the job of a corrections officer is already stressful enough, so working mandatory overtime only makes things more difficult.

“I’ve talked to people who by the time they get back to their apartment, the food in their refrigerator has spoiled. So they just stopped shopping for groceries, and they’re just eating out. And so you’re just living from shift to shift in this kind of stressful environment that creates an environment where you’re likely to make a mistake, because you’re so fatigued,” Wilkison said.

He also added that working during the pandemic may have contributed to corrections officers leaving their post.

“Who would blame someone for getting paid higher, less risk, and potentially have more respect paid them in that role? So you got a real challenge here to try to fix this, and the fix is not going to be found in Travis County. The fix can be found in the country, as we look to fix working conditions, which include pay benefits, retirements, also in the value that we show these people,” Wilkison said.

Impact on inmates?

TCSO said currently, the county jail is still meeting all requirements set by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

“The Texas Commission on Jail Standards sets the minimum requirement for how long inmates must be out of their cells. When we’re operating under normal staffing, we greatly exceed that amount of time. But when we find ourselves short-staffed in a unit, for example, then those inmates will likely have to stay in their cells longer than normal, but they will be still within the mandates of Texas Commission on Jail Standards,” Dark said, negating a report KXAN received stating the jails were operating in a “lockdown” mode.

Other groups, though, expressed concern that the extra strain on current corrections officers could have an impact on how those officers are treating inmates.

“They’re more irritable. They’re overworked, and they’re underpaid. So jail culture, prison culture, as it is, is a very dehumanizing, demeaning process. So when you put the extra stress on these individuals who are understaffed, undertrained and underpaid, they have to take it out on somebody, and the most vulnerable person is the person incarcerated. So they tend to take the brunt of this, which also exacerbates the trauma that they have already experienced prior to incarceration,” Cynthia Simon, a Women’s Policy Fellow at the Texas Center for Justice and Equity, said Monday.

She said solutions need to look beyond fixing staffing shortages.

“I think, before we start trying to find resolutions on to how we’re going to adequately staff the jail, I think the real problem, the real question is system diversion. What are we doing for folks in the community so that they never end up in jail so that the jails are not so overpopulated that we don’t have staff for them?” Simon added.

“If you curb the rate of incarceration, you don’t have an issue where the jail is not able to be properly staffed because you have a lower incarceration rate,” Simon continued.