03-19 bill patrick

Herald-Press Journalist William Patrick

Being a correctional officer is an uncomfortable, often dangerous way to make a living. I know, because three years ago, I was an officer in Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Coffield Unit, working in administrative segregation.

Standing guard over people the courts have ruled too criminal, too violent, or in some cases, just too unlucky to remain in society, has always been a dicey proposition. It is made even more harrowing when staffing is down by one-third, as it often is.

Over the years, TDCJ has attempted, with little success, to bolster recruitment and aid in retention; most officers quit within the first year of employment.

I quit after 13 months. In my short tenure, I received two on-the-job injuries that weren't disabling but required trips to the hospital. I decided that, at 47, I was getting too old for this and left the prison for a job in retail management.

Bonuses of up to $5,000 to work at the less desirable units housing the more violent offenders have been offered, as have bonuses for those with a military or law enforcement background. Most recently, the state legislature authorized a one-time five percent raise for all correctional officers. Starting salaries have increased to $36,000 a year, with an increase to $39,000 after the first year.

I don't want to discourage legislators from giving corrections officer a well-deserved raise, but a 5 percent raise isn't going to attract or retain a significant number of officers. When I decided to leave Coffield for a job that didn't pay more, a 5 percent raise wouldn't have meant anything to me. I don't think it's going to mean much to others.

You have to ask yourself: How much money would it be worth to walk up and down four flights of stairs for 13 hours or more a day in heat that routinely tops 130 degrees?

Bear in mind, the reason for your constant ascents and descents are to tend to the well-being of prisoners so treacherous, they have been segregated from all other prisoners, and live, essentially, in solitary confinement.

Odds are the answer is more than $36,000 a year – especially in an economy so robust that the local poultry plant is paying $15 an hour, more than $31,000 annually, to pluck chickens.

More than 75 percent of all Texas prisons, which house roughly 150,000 inmates, do not have air conditioning in their housing areas. Heat-related illnesses, and even deaths, have been a fight prisoner advocacy groups have been waging in the courts and in Austin for years.

One prison, the Pack unit in Navasota, was outfitted with air conditioning last year, after a four-year, $7-million dollar court battle. Some hoped this landmark decision to free prisoners, as well as guards, from what some consider cruel and unusual punishment would have marked a change in the tide. It did not.

Arguing that outfitting prisons statewide with air conditioning would cost more than $1 billion dollars, lawmakers have made it clear air conditioning is not an expense they are willing to undertake. As long as that's the case, Texas prisons will have an acute staffing problem.

Prisoners will have to make due with cold-water “respite showers,” and increased hydration. Officers, often decked out in several pounds of gear, including tactical vests over their uniforms, will simply have to endure.

Making matters worse, the requirements for become a correctional officer are too low. A candidate must have at least a GED and a felony-free record, as well as complete training at a TDCJ academy.

Facing ongoing staff shortages, the state is considering easing these requirements. That would be a big mistake.

Aside from working briefly as a prison guard, I am a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and former city firefighter. In all those jobs, I expected my colleagues and superiors to be trained professionals.

Working at prison means that one must accept a certain amount of risk. Working with substandard, poorly trained colleagues should not be part of those risks.

A modest raise won't solve the staffing problems at TDCJ – keeping the staff and prisoners out of danger and blistering heat will.