By Max Rodriguez, Backgate Website, (originally published 07/14/09)
He came towering in to the conference room from around a corner inside the TDCJ parole office where he met with us. There seemed to be excitement in the air. Carrying himself as a former West Point graduate would. Open and receptive towards our reporter, and anxious to answer your questions it seemed. Chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice Oliver J. Bell was on a tour of institutional parole offices in Region III Houston area when the Backgate met up with him for an exclusive Q & A session.
Mr. Bell started out by giving us a quick run down of his personal history. He Is a 1982 graduate of the West Point military academy, and then went on to serve his country with the U.S. Army for nearly 15 years. He is also a former airborne officer that established the first Army desert reconnaissance school that saw many recruits prior to, and during the first war in Iraq and thereafter. Mr. Bell eventually left the Army after obtaining the rank of Major.
When asked how he came to be a member, then eventually the chairman of the TBCJ, he stated that after meeting with individuals from the Governor's office, that he eventually decided to accept the voluntary position on the board. He was then selected by the Governor for the position of chairman later on down the line.
The following is the Q & A session that we did with Mr. Bell;
Backgate: What are your ideas on how to improve the quality of the agency ?
Mr. Bell : "TDCJ staff members are outstanding at what they do first of all. I think we have a good base to expand from in place right now, we just have to never be satisfied at where we are at. Through increased pay increases and constant training we can make it a better place. Hiring standards also play a part. We need to keep working towards a common goal in the agency. "
Backgate: As you know, TDCJ employee morale is low on most units statewide. Added responsibility, less staff to perform the work, and lowered hiring standards are complaints that staff claim are all significant issues within the agency right now. WHat can the board do to improve the situation ?
Mr. Bell : "Staffing is at 95% at this point and getting better. TDCJ was the only state agency to see a pay raise this session. That shows, even though it wasn't what we had hoped for, that the legislature knows what needs to be done to help recruit and keep employees. TDCJ added pay increases for recruits and also at the first couple of steps of the pay grade. I know for a fact that the TDCJ leadership team have worked hard at getting employees a pay raise. I think we are on track to seeing significant improvements over time."
Backgate: What exactly is the purpose of the TBCJ ?
Mr. Bell : "We are an oversight board appointed by the governor. We serve 6 year terms. We are basically the eyes and ears for the agency and state government. We come from all different backgrounds, and walks of life. it's a collaborative effort on the boards part to improve the quality of the agency. As part of an initiative i established, i asked that board members visit every TDCJ unit in the state. We did that. Asking line staff and administrators how things were going, and what their ideas were to improve the agency. We asked questions and asked for staff input."
Backgate : Employee retention is a key factor in the staffing shortages that TDCJ has endured over the years. What would you propose to help fix the issues with retention ?
Mr. Bell: "Raising the pay. Establishing professional standards. Improving staff morale. More training."
Backgate : What do you see to be the focus of the board over the next year ?
Mr. Bell : "Standards for CO's and parole officers. Increasing rehabilitation initiatives, expanded use of environmentally " green " projects such as the current pilot program we have that is producing biodiesel for agency tractors. "
Backgate : What do you feel to be the direction of the agency over the next ten years as it applies to TDCJ , and dealing with parole, and prison rehabilitation ?
Mr. Bell : "I think the goal will be public perception of TDCJ as an agency and improving that image. Improved parole and re-entry programs to help make sure the ex-offender that may move in next to you is rehabilitated and you are safe."
Backgate : When you visit TDCJ facilities, what do you see as you walk through those hallways ?
Mr. Bell : "I see good professional correctional officers doing a tough job. Our employees are great."
Backgate : What do you think about the establishment of a board of TDCJ staff members from all over the state to meet and discuss ideas and ongoing issues that may affect morale, turnover, or safety issues ?
Mr. Bell : I think focus, or discussion groups could be a good thing. To take employees at varying levels and allow them to meet with TDCJ directors and others in an effort to solve problems would be beneficial. A " lunch with the director" or other upper leadership groups could be something to look at.
Backgate: What is you take on how to control contraband coming into a TDCJ facility, and what are your ideas on combating issues with corrupt staff members statewide ?
Mr. Bell : "Corrupt staff members make all the others look bas as well. Our goal is to continue to combat them and put them on the other side of the bars. They will fail before we do. One person can set back the agency in the eyes of the public. And public trust is lost. We have a zero tolerance on the issue, and i myself sat at the hearings where TDCJ was grilled pretty good by a state senate committee. It was rough, but i have no problem doing that if it will improve the situation. I am all for enhanced security, and cutting off the flow of contraband into the facilities. As a matter of fact, a hearing at the federal level next week will determine if TDCJ can utilize cell phone jamming equipment to cut off the cell signals from a prison. This would be a great tool. "
Mr. Bell then went on to say that the board is taking the initiative to address employees whenever possible as to let staff know that the board does appreciate the work they do. We thank Mr. Bell, and the board for their participation in this interview, and their promise to assist TDCJ employees in any way possible. In previous years, the board, nor TDCJ would have been as approachable. With public relations weighing in on the way all state agencies do business, and the way Texans vote, we hope that this is just the beginning.