Monday, April 4, 2011
Past Interview by the Backgate: Answers still make since two years later
Originally Posted 08-03-09
At TDCJ's Huntsville administrative complex, he occupies an office at the very end of a long narrow hallway. His office contains a collection of TDCJ memorabilia that he has accumulated throughout his 30-year career with TDCJ, and an array of family pictures. We sat down with Mr. Cooper to discuss the past, present, and future of the agency, and even a little about his own direction within the agency.
Cooper is a 30-year veteran of TDCJ who succeeded Quarterman in his deputy director position. Cooper began his long TDCJ career in 1978 as a correctional officer at the Ellis Unit in Huntsville and steadily rose through the security ranks before being named senior warden of both the Wallace Unit and Ware Transfer Facility in Colorado City in January 1994. He moved to the Telford Unit in New Boston as senior warden in May 2000 and was promoted to director of CID’s Region V Office in Plainview in February 2002.
As Region V director, Cooper oversaw 15 facilities housing approximately 25,000 offenders and served as a liaison between the unit wardens and senior CID administrators. Longtime Clements Unit Senior Warden Bruce Zeller was promoted to replace him as director of the Region V Office.
Cooper is a soft spoken, inviting, yet calculated man who whole heartedly enjoys his position within the agency. He was excited to address TDCJ employees in this forum, and we appreciate his time and effort in giving the interview. When asked about his feelings regarding the Backgate Website, Mr. Cooper stated that he saw it as a positive tool for TDCJ employees. We agree of course.
Below are some of the questions we posed to Mr. Cooper as submitted via email by TDCJ employees statewide;
BG: What are current staffing levels like at this point on TDCJ facilities?
Cooper: "Staffing numbers should be right at 100% by the end of August. The only exceptions may be those units located in West Texas, or other areas where the units are more isolated. I think the current state of the economy has helped us out some, and we hope that are numbers continue to grow. Clerk jobs and other entry level positions have become highly sought after positions in recent months. Positions that would have normally attracted maybe 10 applicants have now brought in 20-30 applicants. Some even having a college degree. Many people are trying to get their foot in the door with the agency, and hoping to climb the career ladder here where their job is more secure unlike those in the private sector. "
BG: How does that effect the quality of staff that we hire?
Cooper: "We hope to be able to increase the TDCJ hiring standards at some point. We will have to look at what exactly that may be, but possibly enact some higher standards of qualification. We tried that some years back with negative results as the number of people applying dropped dramatically after they learned they would have to meet physical requirements to be hired on. We later pulled those requirements. As the pool of prospective employees grows, we can afford to be more selective with the quality of employee we hire. When i started with the agency, there was a line of applicants applying and only a handful were ever hired. As i began working for the agency, i became a recruiter for the agency. There was a steady line of people wanting jobs with the prison, but we could only hire the best we saw. I know that during the last legislative session, Mr. Livingston and the board all worked hard to try to secure TDCJ staff members a raise. And i think it came out ok. We were the only state agency to get a significant raise. During this tough time with the current economy, that came out ok. "
BG: So where are we now on the containment of contraband within the agency after the death row episode?
Cooper: " I think we are gaining ground. Contraband was an issue back in 1978 when i started, and it will continue to be an issue throughout time. We had no issues with cell phones back then of course, but we had issues too. As long as there is a market for it, it will get in. The issue was there before the inmate on death row called senator Whitmire, it just wasn't in the papers. We have been fighting it for some time. We have changed some of the rules regarding shakedowns of employees as they enter our facilities now. Most units have gone to a random shakedown mode. Those units were shown to have had smaller amounts of contraband items found, and it really wasn't feasible to continue to staff those positions full time. Some of the units that have had more contraband activity have kept their entry shakedown positions in tact. We have given our regional directors and wardens more lead way to act as they see fit in these situations. I think the current push for cell phone blocking technology is a good one. If we can successfully block the signals, it makes them useless. But thats in the hands of legislators and the lobbyist for the cell phone companies at this point. We have also been looking at more sophisticated means of detection. Body scanners, x-ray machines and other items. The legislature has assisted us with these items. "
BG: When we interviewed Chairman Bell with TBCJ, we mentioned the possibility of creating an employee forum of some sort to meet with board members, and TDCJ administrators on a regular basis to talk about safety, and security issues within their regions. He was receptive. Whats your take?
Cooper: "That kind of goes along the lines of us speaking to classes at the sergeant's academy, and Lieutenant's command schools. We solicit information from them on where the agency is at, and what needs to be addressed in their regions, and on their units. We get a lot of useful information during these classes. But to answer your question, yes, i think that would be a good idea. "
BG: We hear rumors that you may be contemplating retirement, is that true?
Cooper: "Well, i have the time, and the age to look really hard at it. I have had a successful career with the agency, and i have no regrets, or bad feelings about my work here. I have to say that i would look at other options for employment if they presented themselves. I am young enough to retire here and still work somewhere else for awhile. I have been in corrections for most of my life, and there wouldn't be much in the way of that. I quit TDCJ early on and went to work in the oil fields in the 80's but that didn't work out so i came right back. I kid around around with my family and say that maybe i will get a job as a Wal-mart greeter so that the only big decision i have to make all day long is what isle i have to do clean-up on when theres a spill. "