Military call-ups worsen Texas' prison guard shortage

100 corrections officers mobilized since Sept. 11

War On Terrorism

November 04, 2001|By COX NEWS SERVICE

AUSTIN, Texas - The state's already short-staffed prison system has lost more than 100 prison guards to military call-ups since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and is bracing for the likely mobilization of hundreds more.

Nearly 700 additional workers, mostly correctional officers, are facing possible activation in coming weeks, prompting agency officials to develop contingency plans that could include locking down facilities, slashing prisoner work programs and distributing millions of dollars in overtime pay to remaining guards.

The potential call-ups would add to the existing shortage of 3,348 guards statewide and require an already over-extended work force to monitor Texas' 146,000 inmates.

"It's a problem for us," said criminal justice department spokesman Larry Todd. "We are able to work around it now, but if it continues, we could face some real challenges."

Todd and other agency officials insist that the current and looming call-ups of one in 30 of the state's prison guards will not jeopardize public safety. They say they will not falter on the number of guards assigned to vulnerable posts and that officers working overtime will still receive necessary rest to remain alert.

But some, including officials with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union/Corrections Employees Council, said that officers' absences are affecting morale and raising security concerns among its members.

"It's going to make the job that much more difficult and take that much more of a toll on them personally," said Brian Olsen of Huntsville, executive director of the organization. "It endangers everybody when that happens."

Prison officials acknowledged earlier this year that the prison guard shortage may have indirectly contributed to the escape of the infamous Texas Seven in December. The seven prisoners carried out a well-orchestrated escape from the Connally Unit in South Texas, later killing Irving police Officer Aubrey Hawkins and sparking a national manhunt that ended in Colorado.

With the magnitude of the incident still fresh, mounting concern about the prison worker call-ups has also reached the Capitol and alarmed several senators, including one who all but scolded Texas National Guard leaders this week for allowing their activations.

State Democratic Sen. Carlos Truan of Corpus Christi, chairman of the senate's committee on veterans affairs and military installations, pointedly questioned Guard officials during hearings about the possibility of evaluating members' civilian jobs before issuing departure orders.

Nearly 2,000 National Guard members statewide have been mobilized since the attacks.

"We are obviously committed to assisting with our duties to protect people from terrorists, but I am concerned about a state agency that has had a large vacancy rate among its prison guards losing a lot of that trained personnel," Truan said.

Gen. Wayne Marty, assistant adjutant general for the Texas National Guard, said that military officials have generally not documented civilian jobs for its 20,000 soldiers but could explore the possibilities of doing so.

He shares the senators' concerns but said that many soldiers were eager to leave. He said many of them would be reluctant to tell the truth about their civilian jobs if they knew it would hinder them from getting sent to war.

"These men and women are so patriotic that this is what they want to do," he said. "They want to serve their country in this capacity."

Compounding the mobilization-induced shortages is the fact that the prison system employs an unusually high number of reservists compared with most state agencies, Todd said.

Many say they were lured to the work because of its similarities to the military. Guards, like soldiers, must endure stressful and challenging work conditions as well as follow similar chains of commands, Todd said.

"We knew when we hired them they had military obligations," he said.

Prison officials said soldiers' departures will affect each of the state's 105 prisons in a way no other call-ups have. The gulf war, for instance, was fought mostly with active duty soldiers, not reservists and National Guard members.

Criminal justice agency leaders said they are also concerned that some of the call-ups could involve higher-ranking guards, robbing the prisons of their much-needed experience. Of the 123 soldiers already called up, 13 are at or above the rank of sergeant, while about 75 of the 700 who could still be activated fall in those ranks.

"You don't have people with experience to know what to look for, and you don't have the eyes and ears looking for problems," Olsen said. "When you don't have experienced people, mistakes are made."

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