Molly Ivins

Waiting for Disaster

Waiting for Disaster

ay I suggest that the governor of Texas get his rear back in this state long enough to call a special session to fix the mess in the prison system before the mother of all prison riots occurs? How many times does he need to be warned? How much clearer could this possibly be?

Texas prison guards are underpaid and overworked; prisons are understaffed, and more guards walk off the job every week, leaving the prisons more dangerous for guards and convicts alike. Last month’s riot at Lamesa, with one prisoner dead and thirty-one injured, is the sixth time this year we have had violent episodes in the prisons. Twice this year guards have been taken hostage. In December, a guard was stabbed to death, and there was a riot at the Beeville unit.

AFSCME – that’s the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (known as “Afs-Me”), the union that represents the prison guards – has been screaming about the situation for more than two years. The union has repeatedly warned the Legislature that low pay and fear are driving guards to quit, leaving fewer guards, and causing more fear and more walk-offs in an increasingly dangerous cycle. AFSCME reps worked like dogs last session to get a raise for the guards, who now earn a top salary of $26,724 a year after twenty-one months. But it was a hopeless fight from the beginning – the Governor wanted every nickel of the surplus for his property tax break, and the Lege’s motto was “Now, let’s not embarrass the Governor.” Well, it’s sure going to embarrass the Governor if we have a major prison riot in the middle of his presidential campaign. Not to mention the inexcusable, inevitable loss of life.

The consequences of George W. Bush’s determination to get a big tax cut last session are now showing across the board. We’re trying to do even more with even less, in our notoriously low-tax, low-service state. It is an open secret that one state agency after another is over-budget. No matter how messy things are next session, we can’t wait until next year to do something about the prisons. And the problem is not that we put so many more people in prison and keep them there longer; the incidence of violence in the prisons has far outstripped the growth in prison population.

The prison population has roughly tripled in the past ten years, but the incidence of violence has gone up by a factor of ten. Nor is this due to the once-notorious overcrowding in Texas prisons. Former Governor Ann Richards set this state on a prison-building binge, the likes of which we have never seen. The guards and officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice agree that today’s prisoners are younger and more violent; because they’re serving longer sentences, they feel they have nothing to lose. The parole system is barely functioning, so there’s not much incentive for good behavior. Gangs are rampant, and there is all but open race war in many prisons. The guards are subject to “chunking,” which, to put it bluntly, is the practice of throwing excrement at them. How’d you like to have that happen as a regular feature of your job? No one is going to claim that the guards are all “parfit, gentil knights” – there are some pretty rough customers on this side of the bars, too.

According to Allen Breed (a former director of the National Institute of Corrections and the outside expert brought in to study the system for a court hearing), Texas prisons are plagued with an excessive use of force by guards, and the state has “a greater degree of excessive force than any other state I’ve ever looked at.” He blamed a “culture” of violence among poorly trained guards. But understaffing increases the guards’ fear, leaves them more vulnerable to abuse, and doubtlessly has a deleterious effect on their otherwise lovely manners.

The economics of this are simple. We mostly put prisons in depressed rural areas. (By the way, this is an incredibly stupid practice because it makes it that much harder for prisoners’ families to stay in close touch with them, and families are the major inducement to good behavior.) The state tends to use prisons as a form of economic development; and in hard times, a steady state job is valued. But in a tight labor market, even in rural areas, how many people are willing to work twelve-hour shifts and put their lives on the line for a max of $26K a year? Many of them have other jobs in addition.

Until a guard racks up 240 hours of overtime, there’s no pay – only comp time. But requests for comp time are often turned down because of understaffing. AFSCME is asking for $34,000 a year and a significant increase in the number of guards. It’s a $254 million package.

Relations between T.D.C.J. administrators and the guards are not good; many guards believe that if they speak out about conditions in the prisons, T.D.C.J. retaliates with disciplinary action, which T.D.C.J. denies. Ironically, Daniel Nagle, the guard stabbed to death in December, earlier that month stood up at a rally in Austin and said “someone would have to die” before state officials realize that the prisons are dangerously understaffed and the guards underpaid, overworked and in danger. That was six months and a couple of riots ago, and we’re still waiting.

I have never understood why state agencies try to cover it up when they’re having serious problems. It seems to me – and I have seen it done – that screaming to high heaven, “We can’t do this without more help!” is the only way they’re ever going to get any. Pretending that it’s all under control while the situation continues to get worse is nuts. T.D.C.J. ought to encourage the guards to speak out.

It’s time for a special session. I don’t want to be overdramatic about this, but the blood will be on Bush’s head if something isn’t done soon.

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Lou Dubose was editor of The Texas Observer from 1987-1999. He’s authored five books, including the best-seller Shrub with Molly Ivins. He currently edits The Washington Spectator.

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