State prison officers stretched thin in South Texas

Statewide staffing shortages at state prisons are being felt locally as correctional officers from Hidalgo County are being required to temporarily staff a maximum-security prison 200 miles away.

Correctional officers at the Manuel A. Segovia Unit, a minimum-security prison in Edinburg, met with state Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, on Sept. 6 to discuss concerns over the Texas Department of Criminal Justice mandating that officers spend one of their monthly work cycles at the John B. Connally Unit in Kenedy County. Correctional officers from the Reynaldo V. Lopez State Jail, also in Edinburg, have subsequently raised similar concerns.

Arminda Garza, the Republican candidate for Precinct 3, Place 2 Justice of the Peace on November’s ballot, organized the meeting after an officer from the Segovia unit approached her with concerns over the mandate. More than 20 officers attended the meeting, according to a memo written by Hinojosa’s chief of staff sent to TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier.

Officers were first given the option of volunteering to work overtime shifts at the Connally unit, but it became mandatory Sept. 7, the memo states.

“One female officer who has breast cancer (who was not present at the meeting) expressed her concerns about not being able to make it to chemo treatments and she was told it wasn’t their problem,” the memo notes. “Another officer is currently a single parent to his two small daughters. His wife was deported and he expressed concerns about not having anyone to look after them. He was told to figure something out.”

Another concern raised in the memo is that officers were not provided training to transition between staffing low-level security jails and prisons to the highest-level facility, and Garza said officers have faced retaliation from their supervisors for speaking out against the policy.

Roger Bowers, senior warden for both the Segovia and Lopez facilities, declined to be interviewed and directed The Monitor to TDCJ Communications Director Jeremy Desel, who said that since March the agency has asked volunteers from both the Segovia unit and Lopez state jail to work a full shift rotation at the Connally unit. He denied reports that officers have been required to work shifts at the Connally unit, but noted Wednesday he “didn’t have any reason to believe that they won’t be mandatory as of this week.”

According to a Sept. 10 letter Collier sent to Hinojosa and Lucio, 32 percent of correctional officer positions at the Connally unit are unfilled.

“Given the immediate need, the TDCJ is utilizing staff from the Lopez state jail and Segovia unit to work at the prison in Kenedy,” Collier wrote. “Consideration is given to those who have personal, medical and family circumstances that arise … (and) correctional officers throughout the system receive the same security training allowing the agency to employ them at facilities across the state.”

The letter, however, did not specify whether staff were being asked to volunteer or ordered to work at the Connally unit.

If a TDCJ facility is experiencing a staffing shortfall, the agency will first offer correctional officers at that facility the opportunity to volunteer to work overtime shifts, Desel said. If the shortage continues, officers from nearby facilities will be assigned shifts there on a day-by-day basis.

If the need persists, “the agency will use officers from all over the state,” with volunteers being used first and if that is insufficient, officers will be required to work a full shift rotation there.

According to a Standard Operating Procedure memo the warden issued to his correctional officers Sept. 12, which the The Monitor obtained, “Should the need arise … security staff will be mandatorily reassigned temporarily alphabetically, in groups of 10 per shift daily, four days at a time.” An SOP Bowers issued Sept. 14 bumped the number of officers reassigned by mandate to “groups of 20 per shift, six days at a time.”

Both SOPs noted that, “Consideration for mandatory reassignment maybe (sic) given on individual circumstances.” No dates were provided as to when the mandatory work cycles could begin.

Officers from the William G. McConnell, Ernestine Glossbrenner, the Garza East and Garza West Transfer Facilities, Ruben M. Torres and Clarence N. Stevenson units are also being asked to volunteer at the Connally Unit, according to Desel. All of these units are located in TDCJ’s Region IV, which covers all of South Texas.

“We have a distinct focus in the agency, and have for quite some time, on the recruitment and retainment of correctional officers, especially at units that have recently experienced ongoing staffing shortages and shortfalls,” Desel said, noting that 18 of TDCJ’s 104 facilities are offering $5,000 hiring bonuses, one of which is the Connally unit. “Ideally all units would be fully staffed all the time, but when you’re operating in a state with a very strong job market you do what you can as a state agency to attract folks and keeps folks, and we’re focusing on both.”

TDCJ’s Legislative Appropriations Request (LAR) for 2020-2021 asks for salary increases for parole and correctional officers such that the maximum correctional officers’ annual salary would go from $43,049 to $47,041 and from $44,661 to $49,127 for parole officers.

Hinojosa said Thursday he understands the staffing issue TDCJ faces and will advocate for allocating funding during the upcoming legislative session to increasing employees’ salaries.

“The reality is that correctional officers get very low pay and it’s difficult to attract people to come and work at TDCJ,” he said, noting that private sector jobs in the oil fields or with trucking companies pay more, adding, “Quite frankly, in some of these prisons, they don’t have air conditioning units.”

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The story has been updated to reflect the full version of the article.