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Texas legislature urged to fix crumbling prisons, boost corrections staffing and pensions

Photo credit: Getty
Texas legislature urged to fix crumbling prisons, boost corrections staffing and pensions
Left: President of Local 3920, Tanisha Woods. Right: TCE Executive Director, Jeff Ormsby. Member-provided photos.

Last week, members of AFSCME Texas Corrections Employees (TCE) shared with state lawmakers harrowing stories of the conditions they face on the job.

Tanisha Woods, president of Local 3920, and TCE Executive Director Jeff Ormsby described how AFSCME corrections officers and staff have been stretched to the breaking point, as disaster upon disaster has shattered an already untenable situation at Texas’ prisons.

The recent devastating winter storms and freezing weather in Texas, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 70 people and left more than 4 million people without power and 14 million without drinking water, compounded a crisis Texas prisons were facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as years of neglect.

Woods, a 12-year veteran of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), who works in the Lane Murray Unit within the Gatesville prison, urged Texas House of Representatives Appropriations subcommittee to provide workers like her with the resources they need to do their jobs safely and effectively. Those resources include better staffing, repairs to the facilities where AFSCME members work and better pay to reduce turnover.

“I have personally bailed out cells that had filled with water from leaky pipes with a bucket,” said Woods, describing the dire need to fix and upgrade prison facilities. “Because of COVID, we are not able to have as many inmate workers help with upkeep, so we are falling behind or asking COs to be plumbers, janitors and security all at the same time. Having facilities with working toilets, roofs, lights and doors should be the rule, not the exception.”

Woods added that the storms only exacerbated these long-running problems, forcing some COs to work 20-hour shifts and sleep at the prison’s visitation rooms for fear of not being able to make it home and back in the bad weather. Facilities across the state experienced freezing air penetrating their walls, power outages, cracked pipes, failed plumbing and more.

“We have been doing our best to keep ourselves, each other and the inmates in our care safe. But we are constantly asked to do more with less,” said Woods.

Better staffing and better pay, including an across-the-board pay increase to stem turnover will also be key to solving the problems that plague facilities like hers, she said.

Describing the “vicious cycle” that poor staffing leads to, Woods said, “When a unit is understaffed, it impacts every aspect of the operation.”

For example, making rounds every 30 minutes as required can be impossible, Woods said, when she and fellow COs need to patrol “pods,” large bunk areas with more than 150 inmates, some of whom may need to have medication given to them.

“This isn’t safe or secure,” said Woods. “We simply cannot be in two places at once.”

Moreover, Woods continued, lack of adequate staffing “creates an environment where staff is having to choose which procedures not to follow, and many are afraid this puts them at risk of disciplinary action or termination. This drives down morale and increases turnover.”

Ormsby shared with the Texas Senate Finance Committee yet another threat facing prison staff: a chronically underfunded pension system. He said that AFSCME members represent employees in every unit in the state and in every job classification.

“Even without a global pandemic, TDCJ employees risk their lives every day to serve the state of Texas,” he said.

For their service and sacrifice, they were promised a modest, secure retirement. However, Ormsby said, “That promise is now in jeopardy and, without action from the legislature, the [pension] fund will run out of money within many employees’ lifetime. For those just starting their careers, the fund could be empty before they are done working.”

The fund, Ormsby said, hasn’t been actuarily sound in two decades, adding that the proposed 2022-2023 biennial budget does not place it on a path toward soundness. He called on the legislature to shore up the fund with the $924.2 million it needs to become fiscally stable.

“TDCJ employees have stood courageously on the front line before and during the pandemic, doing everything in our power to keep inmates, staff and our communities safe,” Ormsby said. “We ask that you continue to honor this service, and the service of all state employees, by making good on the promise of a secure retirement.”

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