“This week, four dormitories (376 beds) will temporarily go offline at the Connally Unit in Karnes County,” said Texas Department of Criminal Justice Public Information Officer Jason Clark.
Responding Tuesday morning to questions about reported staffing problems, Clark said the move will not affect security at the maximum security unit north of Bee County.
“We have sufficient capacity to temporarily idle these beds without causing a capacity problem,” Clark said. “The offenders will be absorbed into the existing capacity. We are doing this to help deal with staffing challenges at the unit.”
According to a staffing report released last month by the TDCJ, Connally is just one of the units in Region IV that is having staffing problems. Although the report shows that Connally has slightly more than 214 vacant positions, Joe Baker, editor of the Karnes Countywide newspaper, said the number of vacancies is actually 218.
That same report shows that the McConnell Unit, a maximum security prison in Beeville, is doing only slightly better. That unit has 213 vacancies.
Each of those units employs about 530 officers.
No other unit in the 16-unit region, or in the rest of Texas, has anywhere near that many vacant positions.
The Garza East and Garza West Units in Bee County have 82 and 75 vacancies, respectively.
Clark said the agency is doing what it can to deal with the situation. Those efforts include:
•Recently converting 96 beds that were originally designated for training to Bachelor Officer Quarters for staff assigned to the Connally and McConnell Units.
•Providing unit-based academies for newly hired correctional officers who live in remote areas.
•Doubling the recruitment bonus from $1,500 to $3,000 for newly hired correctional officers who agree to work for one year at an understaffed unit, such as McConnell and Connally.
•Redoubling recruitment efforts and recently launching newspaper and radio advertising campaigns for correctional officer positions.
Clark said administrators at the two understaffed units are working to ensure that critical areas of the prisons are adequately staffed.
Officers now working in Regions IV and VI are being asked to volunteer for additional hours and are being paid overtime.
According to Baker’s Countywide article, about 13.4 percent of Connally’s 2,800 offenders will be moving to other units within the TDCJ system.
According to Clark, that will amount to 376 offenders.
Currently at McConnell, where the staffing shortage is comparable, there are no plans to move offenders.
However, Clark said administrators continue to monitor staffing needs and will take action at any other of the state’s units when that becomes appropriate.
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. But the agency provides a number of attractive benefits like health insurance, retirement and others.
Oil field jobs are much more attractive financially, but working hours are often long and hard. Truck drivers, for instance, have been reported to be making between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, but they are required to spend many more than 40 hours a week on the road in order to make that kind of money.
According to the summary of authorized and filled positions for correctional officers, Region IV has the highest percentage of vacancies. Only 77.36 percent of the correctional officer positions in this region were filled as of May 31.
McConnell Unit’s percentage of filled positions was at 59.89 percent, according to the report. The Connally Unit’s percentage of filled positions stood at 59.30 percent.
The report indicated that Garza East and West Units each had more than 78 percent of their positions filled.
Only 77.36 percent of all correctional officer positions within the 16-unit region were filled as of the end of last month.
Statewide, 90.28 percent of the TDCJ’s (23,598.5 positions) currently are filled.
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.