An Open Letter To The Texas Legislature

To The Honorable Texas Legislators:

By taking time to read the letter, I know that you, too, may be concerned about the current situation that exists with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice - Institutional Division. There more issues involved than just salary.

The salary has been comparable for many years, however, with the present shortage of staff and poor working environment, it has become an issue. If staffing were up to full capacity, and working conditions were better, it may not have reached the point that is has now reached. Here are a few of the things of which I speak.

Each day that a correctional officer walks from the free world inside the wall of high fences and razor wire, they wonder if they will walk out alive. If they say this doesn't cross their mind, they are not being honest with themselves. A better working environment would curb lots of stress and problems, both for the officer and the offender.

According to TDCJ, two hundred staff members were injured during the month of July, 2000 ( TDCJ - Risk Management ). There have been 1258 reportable injuries since January 1, 2000. Of these, there have been more than 800 staff members hurt in offender related assaults/incidents and unsafe conditions (which are not identified). If you look at this chart, you will not that during the summer months these numbers rise.

IF all TDCJ-ID facilities were temperature regulated year round, I believe these numbers would decrease. When people, whether officers or offenders, are hot and suffer from the heat, tempers flare. This has been prove time and again. Texas is spending billions of dollars on prisons. A few more dollars spent on air conditioning would improve the working environment. If we did have air, perhaps the offenders wouldn't be so irritable and lash out at staff. Of course, it would certainly make our jobs a lot more comfortable.

Personally, I have suffered from heat exhaustion three times this summer. I am seeing both officers and offenders being affected by the sweltering Texas heat. At times I work in 90 degree buildings with no ventilation, and I work on a unit that has air part of the time. I say this, because more than not, the air doesn't work for a number of reasons. If the meteorologists are correct in believing that before the year 2005, the average Texas summer temperature will be 110-115, we are in serious trouble.

IF we were staffed at full capacity, there would be less assaults and the injury rate would decline. Everyone agrees that our job is extremely stressful. According to the US Department of Justice, it is the 4th most violence job in the nation. Another survey states that is the 2nd worst job, just below that of sewer workers. Many of us work on units that are so understaffed that we are working double shifts just to cover our posts. The majority of us can't get days off other than those regularly scheduled. The state is paying overtime (roughly $20 per hour for CO4 positions) to those working extra hours. This money could be better served if we were at full staff and it would cost the State of Texas less money.

IF the State would hire more qualified officers it would help greatly. Too many of those hired are completing their pre-service, going through their on the job training and walking away. A person need only be 18 years of age with a high school diploma or a GED to apply for TDCJ. I am sorry, but I don't believe most 18 year olds realize what they are getting in to when they accept a position. They haven't seen enough of life and are too immature to be exposed to the type of environment we face daily. Their lives will be altered forever.

Some have never seen a person have a seizure, and still they are putting themselves in an environment where they will be spit on, have feces and other body fluids thrown on them, kicked, cut, stabbed, sexually assaulted, physically assaulted, or even murdered. The inmates know how to play the game, and they prey on these youngster, physically, mentally and sexually.

I have been in the military, have been a county detention officer and a police officer, so I have somewhat grown immune to inmate behavior as I have seen it often. At age 52, I still find it difficult to cope with the smell of human blood when it smeared needlessly at the hands of another person.

IF our medical and dental insurance rates were more comparable to our salary, this would be of great benefit. Each time we get the slightest pay increase, our insurance copay/deductibles increase. Yes, we received a $100 across the board salary increase last Sept. But with health insurance increase, few officers saw more than $5-25. At the same time, the price of almost every consumer product also increased.

Why are some many correctional officers having to work two or more jobs to make a comfortable living? Why are some of our HMO's considering dropping certain occupations (including corrections) from their services? An officer I know had open heart surgery last year. He was told by his physician that his insurance may be dropped because of his occupation. It was said that too many officers are having heart attacks and heart related problems due to their work environment.

Finally,
IF our salary were comparable to other states, perhaps we could hire more professional correctional officers. Texas now has over 150,000 persons incarcerated in 100 plus prison facilities and state jails. These are monitored and supervised by approximately 28,000 correctional officers. Only California has a larger penal system than Texas, yet our salary no where compares with the correctional officers of that state.

The number of officers is growing less but the number of offenders is getting larger. Newspapers report that the Texas Congress is proposing to build a number of new prisons because of the expected increase in the inmate population between now and 2005. Who is going to supervisor those offenders? Is it going to take another Federal mandate such as Ruiz to bring the Texas penal system up to its needed potential?

As you can see, I have many concerns when it comes to my occupation as a Correctional Officer. I was not forced into this profession, but I chose it. I have been employed by TDCJ-ID for more than five years and have seen it worsen greatly. I take pride in my job, as do most officers. But pride doesn't keep us safe, nor does it feed our families.

Respectfully,
A Correction Officer

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