Lance Lowry, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said that recent indictment of 17 officers shows that the system is broken.
“That should send a clear warning to state leadership there is a problem.”
Last week, three local residents were named among 32 people, including 17 correctional officers from the McConnell Unit prison, indicted federally with charges that range from selling drugs within the prison to smuggling phones for gang members.
Kenneth Magidson, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas, announced the indictments earlier this week as the culmination of a four-year investigation that began in Corpus Christi.
Beeville residents indicted were Stephanie Deming, 23, Lela Ysolde Hinojosa, 51, and Arturo Salas, 22. Also indicted was Jamar Tremayne Green, 29, of Refugio.
According to the indictment, on Oct. 28, 2009, Deming, while a correctional officer, accepted or agreed to accept cash from an inmate in exchange for a cell phone.
She, along with another officer, Megan Brook Morales, are also accused of possessing with the intent to distributed cocaine between September 2009 and October of that year.
This indictment also accuses Hinojosa, while a correctional officer, of accepting or agreeing to accept cash twice from an inmate in exchange for a cell phone in 2009.
The indictment adds that in January 2011, Salas, inmate Christopher Owens and a third unidentified person conspired to distribute marijuana. The indictment adds that Salas, as a correction officer, also provided Owens with an unidentified controlled substance.
Jason Clark, public information officer with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said that the state takes events like those accused in the indictment seriously.
“I cannot speak specifically about the investigation,” he said.
“That type of behavior is not tolerated.
“We have been working with the Office of the Inspector General to prosecute those involved.
“We applaud the apprehension of those former correctional officers and continue to work closely with the OIG and the federal employees to make sure all of those involved have been prosecuted.”
Lowry said that these indictments highlight a much larger problem that is plaguing the prison system.
And that boils down to the state Legislature not keeping up with both pay and training for the men and women Lowry calls the “frontline of defense” to curtailing prison gang violence.
“We have higher demands on our correctional employees than we did 20 and 30 years ago,” he said.
“With this indictment, it clearly identifies the type of danger these organizations present,” he said.
“This is not a mall security job.
“We are dealing with some really serious, dangerous gangs.
“Prison gangs are the equivalent of the drug cartel on this side of the border.
For years, the Texas prison has been developed into a warehousing situation... we weren’t looking at what we were doing in the long run,” he said. “We were developing a training camp for organized crime.”
Pay raise needed
Lowry said he would like to see a 14 percent pay raise for correctional officers — along with better training and screening of applicants.
But, he said, that will take money — something that is in short supply.
“For years, the state Legislature, they have been able to balance the budget on employees’ backs,” he said. “The bubble is fixing to burst, and they are going to end up with some type of disaster.
“There is a correlation between suicide rate, violence and staffing levels.
“When you get into less experienced staff you are opening up a major public safety issue here.”
Clark said that Brad Livingston, the executive director with TDCJ, has proposed that all state employees receive a raise but at least the raise go to uniformed security.
Competing with the boom
Part of the problem is that the state is not paying what private sector jobs can offer — such as those associated with the Eagle Ford Shale.
Starting pay for a correctional officer here is about $28,000. That increases to an average of about $31,000 after one year of service.
Currently, officers willing to work in an understaffed unit like McConnell can receive a $3,000 signing bonus if they agree to stay a year.
McConnell is one of 10 prisons within the state where officers can receive this bonus.
Staffing at this unit is 34 percent short of being full and filling these positions is a priority.
“These positions are some of the most demanding jobs in the state with correctional officers oftentimes working in difficult situations,” Clark said.
He said that each facility is required to keep a certain number of officers per inmate — which does vary depending upon the unit and the type of prisoner.
A shortage of correctional officers forced the state recently to shift inmates to keep this balance.
Statewide, 1,400 inmates were shifted. At McConnell, 84 beds are now vacant because of the depleted staff.
“We did that to help deal with some of the staffing challenges there,” Clark said.
Oil field attraction
The problem is that oil field jobs are much more attractive financially. Truck drivers, for instance, have been reported to be making between $50,000 and $100,000 a year.
“They (prisons) are not keeping up with the prevailing wage,” Lowry said. “These employees are having to make ends meet, and they are looking elsewhere.”
Clark said that it was a leap to connect the recent indictments with the amount that correctional officers are paid.
He did say, however, that the recent oil boom has made it difficult to keep staffing levels full because of salary levels.
“In some cases, (correctional officers) are leaving their positions for salaries up to two times or more,” he said.
It’s not just the low pay that Lowry says leads good men to unscrupulous acts.
“It is the lack of professional standards,” he said. “Pay is not the root of the problem, but it is a factor that creates a problem.”
The state must address the turnover rate at the prisons.
“The facilities which did not have a high turnover rate had less corruption,” he said. “It comes down to retaining your employees.”
Screening the new hires
He called for the state to improve its screening process for new employees.
“If you have the system in place in developing these officers, you would screen a lot of these bad apples out,” he said.
But beyond that, he called for the state to better train the employees once they are hired.
Lowry said that with the oil boom pilfering so many potential job applicants, it is making it hard to attract qualified employees.
People, he said, can make more driving rigs or working in the field.
“Now that you have the energy system flourishing, it is burdensome to stay at the McConnell Unit,” he said.
The problem, he said, can only be solved by funding.
“We cannot put a band-aid on this bullet wound,” he said. “We need to perform some major surgeries on these institutions.”
Jason Collins is the editor at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 121, or at editor@mySouTex.com.