Friday, February 22, 2013

Backgate request for open records on staffing dismissed by TDCJ

By Michael Williams, Backgate Website

TDCJ staffing issues have been front and center in the media within the past few weeks, and a Smith Unit employee even recently ruffled Adminstrative feathers when she went on a local Lubbock TV station speaking out on dangerous TDCJ staffing levels. Issues with mandatory overtime, and dangerous working conditions of TDCJ staff members statewide due to shortages have also discussed.  So just how short is TDCJ statewide as of this month ? Well we may never know. The Backgate submitted a formal open records act request for current information on staffing levels and overtime usage on some of the states most understaffed facilities, to include the Smith Unit.

TDCJ answered with a denial and a notice that stated that the request was forwarded to the Attorney Generals Officer for review as they (TDCJ) were disputing the release of the information. As strange as it may seem, the Backgate has requested and received the very same requested information on numerous occasions in the past from the TDCJ open records office. The information requested is indeed releasable under the act and should never have been referred. By law, any state agency that is asked to provide open records can ask that the Texas Attorney Generals office limit or block information based on certain issues in the law that protect certain types of information. This information however is not covered. We believe that the denial is based on retaliation by the agency for our coverage of the Michelle Lyons "constructive termination" and lawsuit waged against the agency. It only prolongs the release, and makes the agency appear to be hiding the facts on the current issues.

The Backgate has been fortunate enough to have been able to pick up several great Texas attorneys over the years and have referred the issue to them for resolution. We also plan to address Legislators along with the media on the motives that the agency may have for refusal to release the information.

What do they really want to hide ? Are agency employees in more danger then first thought ? Stay tuned, it ain't over yet.

TDCJ Employees Union Lobbys Ledge for 14% raise

For Immediate Release from the AFSCME union for The Backgate Website

TDCJ continues to remain dangerously understaffed, despite the agency offering a $3,000 bonus for newly hired officers willing to work at some of the most short-staffed prisons in the state. The problem will only get worse because of increased oil fracking and drilling in areas where TDCJ has many of its units, explained Lance Lowry, President of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Correctional Employees Council 7, Local 3807, headquartered in Huntsville. 

“New geological data indicates the Eagleford Shale and Woodbind Shale run through the heart of the Texas prison system, between Huntsville and Palestine,” Lowry said. “There are 18 prison units in that area alone, and that area is expected to see a substantial increase in oil fracking and drilling. 

“TDCJ correctional officers are among the lowest paid correctional staff in the nation,” he continued. “Many COs see the earning potential in the oil industry and are going there. When it comes to correctional officer pay, the grass is definitely greener outside the prison system – and the grass within the prison walls is rapidly dying.”

Friday, February 15, 2013

Smith Unit Officer who blew whistle on staffing now faces harassment, disciplinary action by admin

By Duane Stuart, Backgate Website

The "anonymous" TDCJ Smith unit employee who came forward and blew the whistle on what could have been considered a deadly staffing situation for employees of the Smith Unit in Lamesa just last week received an employee disciplinary this week for what looks at this point to be in retaliation for that act. The employee came forward and went on a local TV station  (KAMC Lubbock) with agency staffing issues that could result in a dangerous situation for staff and offenders assigned there. The employee, who went on a local TV news cast speaking behind a blackened screen to avoid being retaliated against by the agency was soon to be identified in the work place.

That employee, who is in contact with the Backgate, is now in fear of the unit administration for merely bringing a safety issue to light. The Smith unit is listed as only being roughly 50% staffed at this time. Meaning staff are being mandated to work overtime, and some positions are still unmanned at times although staffing plans require they be staffed at all times. TDCJ claims that outside employers are luring Officers to other jobs in the private sector that have shown huge gains in profit and growth. Some of those jobs include the oil and gas industry where employees can double what state employment can offer each month.

The Backgate is in touch with state legislators regarding the issues regarding the harassment of this employee, and I'm sure that there will be some private attorneys interested as well. Seems to me that if the state would correct their own issues that it's employees wouldn't feel the need to go elsewhere to solve them. It's called being proactive. Stay tuned. We are riding this one out.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Is the TDCJ Smith Unit at a critical staffing level?

By Tonya Peters, Backgate Website

An employee at the TDCJ Smith unit in Lemesa has chosen to break the silence about staffing issues at the West Texas prison and go on air to bring public awareness to a potentially deadly situation. A employee of that facility was featured anonymously on screen at KAMC TV recently explaining how chronic under staffing at the prison has put employees in danger, and created a situation where millions are being spent on forced overtime for staff. TDCJ claims the unit is operating at 53% staffing levels, meaning half of the total allotted number of employees are being required to fill those gaps left by those vacancies. An act that unit employees, along with the featured Officer, claim may result in employee or offender injuries or deaths if not addressed. We are following under staffing around the state, how it affects safety and the state budget. We have also brought in some Texas Legislators to give us their two cents on the issue. Stay tuned for more...

Click below to see the written and video stories regarding the Smith Unit issues on KAMC TV.

Click Here !

AFSCME Union pushes ledge for TDCJ off duty carry bill

By Lance Lowery, For the Backgate Website 
AFSCME Texas Correctional Employees call on Texas Legislature for off duty carrying rights.  Three days ago a Kaufman County assistant DA was gunned down by suspected prison gang members.  The Assistant DA was investigating the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas.  Prison gangs are no laughing matter and they have targeted public officials, including correctional officers.
Officer Arthur Redelfs, a correctional officer with the El Paso County Sheriff, was killed by members of the Barrio Azteca prison gang after having a run in with gang members at work.  Redelfs was taking his his wife and two of her coworkers to lunch when the hit went down.  Redelfs' wife and her two coworkers worked for the US Consulate in Juarez.  This incident helped bring attention to the US Border and cartel issues.  Unfortunately not much attention was brought to the fact this was not a cartel hit, but was a hit by a Texas prison gang.
As public servants and one of the lowest paid law enforcement officials in this country, Texas correctional officer families should not have to incur the cost of concealed handgun license and training (estimated cost $350).   Even with the CHL some TDCJ wardens will not permit the storage of weapons in an officers vehicle at work, making the officers an easy target for gang members. These officials already carry weapons on duty, have all undergone the required criminal background check, and have been trained on lawfully discharging a firearm.  Its time Texas update their gun laws to recognize the carrying rights of their public officials who insure public safety. 
The bill would add the following under Penal Code Section 46.15 to allow of duty carry privileges;

"(10) an employee of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice who holds a certificate of proficiency issued by that agency."

Back the Bill....

Ex-TDCJ PIO wins TWC appeal for benefits

By Duane Stuart, Backgate Website

Michelle Lyons, the ousted TDCJ public information officer harassed and subsequently "constructively terminated" after emailing the Backgate Website, has won an appeal from the Texas Workforce Commission that allows her to receive past and future benefits from the agency. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) had blocked and fought against benefits for Lyons after the claim she quit state employment. Lyons, who has since filed a federal lawsuit against the state for their actions, then submitted proof that she was constructively terminated by TDCJ after bringing to light questions of errors in timekeeping within her executive department. After requesting public information via email to Ms.Lyons, she emailed the Backgate from her state computer briefly mentioning the issue and advising us that she was no longer the PIO for the agency.

Lyons, without our knowledge, had already been moved to another office and stripped of the PIO position after bringing up the time keeping issues. Her computer was being monitored at her newly assigned job by the upper administration and she was subsequently disciplined over the email sent to us merely stating that she was no longer PIO. The actions of the TDCJ at that point appeared to be retaliatory in nature from our prospective as it was clear they had a target on her back for bringing forth the issues.

After being charged with yet another disciplinary unfairly, Lyons decided  to resign her position with the TDCJ. She applied for benefits through the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) and was denied after a hearing was conducted with the TDCJ regarding her "resignation". TDCJ enlisted an attorney from the office of general counsel (OGC) to assist the state in fighting the request for benefits from Ms. Lyons. This is to our knowledge the first time TDCJ has enlisted an OGC attorney to fight against the agency paying unemployment benefits to an employee. All other hearings are fought by unit level administrators or department managers over the phone with the TWC. Why bring out the big guns  unless your trying to prove a point, or use the denial as a means of retribution or retaliation? The TWC subsequently denied her claim. Ms. Lyons filed an appeal and the TWC board found that she did in fact meet the criteria for being constructively fired by the agency, and implemented her benefits.

The below official statement was that issued by the TWC regarding the case of Ms. Lyons;

“In late December 2011, the claimant was the employer’s Public Information Officer (PIO) and the manager of its Public Information Office. The claimant was a Manager IV in a salaried, exempt position. In mid-to-late December 2011, the employer concluded that the claimant was guilty of falsifying her timesheet. The claimant, as a salaried, exempt employee, was not eligible to receive overtime or compensatory time off. The claimant had been, throughout her tenure with the employer, simply indicated on her timesheets “8” hours worked for each day of the workweek. This was the manner in which the claimant was trained to prepare her timesheet. The claimant did this even if she worked more than 8 hours on a given day. It was not out of the ordinary for the claimant to work more than 40 hours in a given weed. The claimant stood to gain nothing monetarily by her consistent method of preparing her timesheet. The employer concluded that the claimant falsified her timesheet and emoted the claimant to a Manager II, which reduced her pay by approximately $14,000 per year. Pursuant to the employer’s guidelines, the claimant’s position meant that she was not eligible to grieve the disciplinary action taken against her. Nevertheless, the claimant protested that other department managers were preparing their timesheets in the same manner that she had and yet they were not disciplined. The employer opted not to pursue an investigation based on the claimant’s allegation. 

The claimant acquired legal representation and filed an EEOC charge of sexual discrimination against the employer, alleging that those who were not disciplined were males. In March 2012, when the claimant subsequently acquired her “right to sue” authorization, the employer was notified of this fact. It was at about this time that the employer charged the claimant with “misconduct” for her alleged act of removing press release files from a shared computer directory. The claimant had moved these files to her individual directory. Consequently, the employer transferred the claimant out of the Public Information Office and to the employer’s Executive Services department. While in this latter department, the claimant was directed to forward all correspondence from the media to the employer’s new PIO. Rather than merely transferring such media emails to the new PIO, the claimant advised the e-mailers that she was no longer the employer’s PIO, and that the new PIO would be their future contact. The because the claimant did not simply forward the e-mails, the employer moved to discharge the claimant for failure to obey an order. The claimant ultimately opted to resign in lieu of being discharged. Prior to the disciplinary action taken against the claimant beginning in December 2011, the claimant had an unblemished service record with the employer.”  

Ms. Lyons has been in contact with the Backgate and says she is doing fine, and has since gained employment elsewhere. Her lawsuit against the TDCJ is progressing. We will advise when the court sets a date on her case. We hope that justice prevails and that the taxpayers of Texas will voice concern over the millions of dollars of their money wasted to pay for lawsuits against the state where the state is clearly at fault. It's become too easy for administrators to create havoc on the job and then expect the state to cough up money to cover their short comings.