See Prison turnover leaves units understaffed: Experts attribute exits to stronger oil, gas markets by Keri Blakinger of The Houston Chronicle. Excerpts:
"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.""
"Low wages, high danger
For officers on the job, high turnover can raise safety concerns when many of the employees are new.
"When you lose 20-some percent of your employees every year, it's hard," Lowry said.
One of the challenges in staffing Texas prisons is the low wages. Officer pay starts around $32,000 per year, with increases at three and nine months. After seven years, pay plateaus at $43,000.
"If you want the staff to stay - and having experienced staff is critical for effective prison operations - then the pay has to increase significantly," said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
Whitmire concurred, pointing out other potential troubles that stem from low-income offerings.
"The low pay is a problem in terms of the increase in contraband," he said. "I was told this by a warden: They've caught correctional officers making more in selling contraband cigarettes than they're making from the state.""