Gatesville: Texas prisons suffer staff shortages, hiring issues

The Hilltop Unit in Gatesville is the second oldest prison building in Texas. (Photo by Paul J. Gately)
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GATESVILLE, Texas (KWTX) Texas spent more than $9 million in signing bonuses in 2018 as the state's prisons tried to deal with staff shortages but little changed and the state's 104 prisons still are less than safe places to work.

But that's not so much the case in Gatesville.

The reason Gatesville, and the rest of the prison units in Region VI of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice – Institutional Division (TDCJ-ID), don't see turnover at the state's average is because "we know how to run prisons around here and Gatesville's been doing it for a long time," Don Jones, Coryell County commissioner, said.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee, agrees.

"I believe in most instances we put the prisons in all the wrong places," he said.

"Some are located in communities that don't even have housing available for the correctional officers."

Not so in Gatesville, which is home to six prison units.

Five house women, including women's death row, and one is a men's maximum-security unit.

Gatesville is the only place in Texas that is home to more than one female prison unit and there only are eight in the state all together.

There are 4,133 full time and 52 part-time security employees in TDCJ-ID's Region VI, of which the six Gatesville units are a part, and there remain 746.5 vacancies, or about 87 percent staffed, Jeremy Desel, media specialist for the TDCJ-ID said.

System-wide, TDCJ-ID is authorized 25,944 positions and currently total vacancies number 4,322, about 83 percent staffed.

Region V, the Panhandle, is the worst area for understaffing at just a bit more than 70 percent staffed, Desel said.

Correctional Officer staff shortages throughout Texas are creeping higher, toward April 2018's record 15.22 percent vacancies, and that has TDCJ-ID executives scrambling for answers, but studies, both in Texas and around the country, say the issues are simple: marginal pay and officer work environment, including air conditioning.

A January article in the Houston Chronicle pointed out security officer turnover climbed to more than 29 percent, 24.8 percent agency wide.

TDCJ-ID reported the number of units where officer vacancy climbed higher than 25 percent nearly doubled in the past year, and those separations more than likely were driven by low pay and assignments in remote locations, prison experts and officials said.

The prison system routinely accounts for about 26 percent of the state workforce and 31 percent of departing employees.

Currently prison guards start at the CO-III salary category, which pays $36,238.08 annually, and that base climbs to $38,302.32 after 24 months service, the TDCJ-ID webpage says.

That salary is capped at 91-months service at $43,049.40 and to earn more, an officer must qualify and advance in rank.

That starting salary can be increased, however, should a candidate choose to work at one of several units that provide a signing bonus of from $4,000 to $5,000.

TDCJ-ID lists 19 units where the $4,000 bonus of applied, and a like 19 that pay a $5,000 bonus, none of them are in Gatesville.

A recent report issued by a national prison watchdog group said TDCJ-ID reported 12 of the state's prisons are staffed at less than 75 percent and one reported staffing at 54 percent.

It was the Telford Unit, in New Boston that was far understaffed in 2015 when a correctional officer was killed by an inmate, and the issue of officer safety in the face of critical understaffing came into the courtroom.

Texas employs almost 26,000 prison guards who work in 104 state prisons, and in 2017, 28 percent left their jobs, at the time an increase from the prior year's 22.8 percent turnover rate, "the highest in recent memory," Bryan Collier, executive director of TDCJ-ID, said at the time.

The high rate of staff attrition in 2018 was accompanied by an inability to fill 3,930 open guard positions, which left the agency with a peak vacancy rate of 15.22 percent in April 2018.

Gary Anderson, director at the Texas Professional Employees Association, agrees TDCJ-ID has serious employee shortages, but, he says, they're not alone.

"We find there are problems statewide in attracting and retaining employees," Anderson said.

"Location is a factor, but the issue is much more complicated than that."

Gatesville is the home of the second-oldest detention facility in the State of Texas after the Legislature, in 1889, opened the original building at the Hilltop Unit as the state's first "House of Correction and Reformatory" for incorrigible boys under the age of 16.

It was the first juvenile training and rehabilitation institution in the southern United States and initially housed 68 boys who had formerly been imprisoned with adult felons at the Huntsville Unit.

Since then the city has been home to some type of detention facility.

The Gatesville State School closed in 1979, soon after TDCJ-ID took the facilities from the Texas Youth Commission and began modifying the former juvenile facilities into space to house women, then the city worked to attract the Alfred D. Hughes Maximum Security men's unit, and soon behind the state put two more women's units there.

And the ultimate benefit for Gatesville is lots of good jobs, Gatesville businessman John Ward said.

He foresaw that back in the 1980s when, while he was serving as mayor, he helped organize an effort to get the Hughes Unit built in Gatesville.

He and several other city and county officials and literally hundreds of citizens boarded buses to ride to Austin during Texas Senate Corrections Committee meetings to show support for the city as a new home to a prison unit.

"It was about the jobs," Ward said.

In the boom to build lockups in the early 1990s, the only other places in Texas the Legislature was building prison units where others already existed were the areas around Huntsville and Palestine.

It now is considered the greatest expansion of state prison beds in the history of the free world, former TDCJ-ID Director Andy Collins said.

Collins oversaw the expansion, which he now says was misdirected.

"The public was absolutely hoodwinked into thinking that the only way the crime problem could ever be solved was prosecution and incarceration," Collins told Texas Monthly in a story that published in 1996.

"It was the stupidest thing the State of Texas has ever done," Collins said.

"We should've been interceding at an earlier age, dealing with these kids before they ever became crooks. But instead, we're just taking juveniles and feeding them directly into the system," he said.

"I mean, look who was behind it all. Prosecutors, cops, politicians—all of them with a self-serving agenda."

Ultimately, over the past eight years the state has shuttered eight prisons, some among them units that were built in the 1990s.

Rita Thomas Pitts went to work at the Mountain View Unit as a correctional officer in 1982, but by the time she retired more than 26 years later, she had reached the status of Senior Warden.

She said during her early days at TDCJ-ID, staffing wasn't such a problem and she lays the blame for today's issues on the type of people TDCJ-ID is attracting to the job.

"Back in those days we didn't call in sick or we didn't call for time off," Pitts said. "I remember going in to work many days when I didn't feel well.

"But we felt a kinship and a responsibility to those other people who worked on the units and we didn't want to let them down," Pitts said.

The system attracted people to work because "It was the best paying job people could get around here," Pitts said, "and it was almost impossible to get fired from TDCJ-ID. It was a job for life," Pitts said.

"I believe many of the people who hire on today are interested only in the paycheck and they feel no responsibility to the job or their fellow officers."

Anderson supported that thought, saying studies show people who hire on to state jobs who are younger than 30-years-old and who have less than two years' experience have posted turnover rates as high as 40 percent, while the overall state average turnover is 19- to 20-percent.

"Back then most of the officers felt a duty to do their jobs and we were good at it."

Pitts said she remembers working mandatory overtime when staff was short and being discouraged from calling in sick.

But Pitts also says it was the way officers treated the women they watched that helped make both working in and serving time at prison a bit more manageable.

"At the Gatesville units we treated those women like women and that prevented many of the issues in dealing with them."

Pitts said part of the reason units in places like Gatesville tend to be more successful than others is because there's a family element for many working there.

"There are fourth- and fifth-generation employees working in Gatesville, employees whose great grandparents worked at the units, so there is some tradition there and that helps with turnover," Pitts said.