The Texas prison guard shortage shows how an improved economy can be a challenge for government services.
A prison guard shortage is a failure of government to provide for a basic need of society: protection from criminals. A sudden improvement in the job market can cause such a failure. Guarding a prison isn’t desirable work, nor is it glamorous. Jurisdictions tend not to pay prison guards that much.
So, when the oil and gas boom started in Texas, the prison system suddenly had a problem retaining people to work as prison guards.
The Houston Chronicle reports, “‘Mass exodus’ of Texas prison guards leaves some units understaffed.”
Texas prisons are shedding officers with a staggering 28 percent turnover rate in the last fiscal year, a “mass exodus” that some experts say stems from a strengthening economy and recovering oil and gas sector.
“A lot of these guys don’t want to work in a prison,” said Lance Lowry, a spokesman for the Huntsville-based Texas Correctional Employees union. “There’s other job opportunities opening up in rural Texas.”
Data from the Texas State Auditor’s Office show a marked increase over the previous year, when 22.8 percent of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s roughly 26,000 officers left for other jobs. At the same time, department vacancy rates have crept up again to over 12 percent, with 3,207 jobs unfilled.
“When the economy is doing well and growing is typically when we see correctional officers leave for better paying jobs,” said TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark. “The more rural areas tend to be more challenging, particularly in South Texas when we’ve seen an uptick in oil and gas jobs being offered.”
But in 2017, with the oil and gas boom largely in the rearview mirror, that doesn’t explain the whole picture.
“From 2012 to 2014, [turnover] was becoming pretty acute and especially where fracking was kind of big,” said Scott Henson, policy director with the nonprofit Just Liberty. Then, “it was more than just a vague correlation.”
Five years ago, the McConnell and Connally units — both in counties that lie partially on the Eagle Ford Shale — had just over 40 percent vacancy, according to Business & Finance Division data.
Now, the southeast region of the state — which is far from the currently most active oil and gas fields — is experiencing rising officer turnover rates close to 37 percent, the highest in Texas.
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