By Lance Lowry, AFSCME
With the Texas Legislature releasing its finalized budget this last week, correctional officers question why their pay raise was only half that of other statewide law enforcement. Lance Lowry President of the Huntsville American Federation of State County Municipal Employees, which represents Texas Correctional Officers, stated Monday that the State Legislature is treating correctional officers as the ugly stepchild of the Criminal Justice System. Texas Correctional Officers will only receive a 5 % raise over two years, while all other state law enforcement will receive a 10 % raise. Lowry states with the raise split up over two years and an increase in retirement contributions, correctional officers will only see a little over 1% increase in their actual pay this next September.
Lowry has attempted to address with the legislature the increasing staffing shortages which plague Texas prisons. Staffing levels have fell to almost half the required officers at several Texas prison units. Lowry states the current proposed increases fails to cover inflationary cost of living over the last two years and the legislature is being unrealistic on their attempt to address chronic staffing demands now in the thousands. With energy production increasing dramatically in South and East Texas, Lowry states most officers can make twice as much in the energy sector and expects staffing to only get worse.
In the late 70's and 80's the Texas Prison System was plagued with chronic under funding, which resulted in the Federal courts taking over the prison system. Lowry states the legislature and state leadership have signaled again they are incapable of properly running their prison system and states history is repeating itself.
Lowry states while most correctional officers are out of sight and out of mind, they do one of the most important jobs in our criminal justice system. The job is hot, dirty, extremely dangerous, and is one of the most stressful jobs anyone can incur Lowry states. Prison officers receive little recognition unlike police who are exposed to the public everyday. Lowry states there is a clear wall of silence shielding correctional officers from the general public.
In February, 17 former prison guards were indicted by a federal grand jury after a 4 year investigation authorities dubbed Operation Prison Cell. The guards are alleged to have help inmates commit crimes from behind bars at TDCJ's McConnell prison in Beeville, including bringing in drugs and cell phones to coordinate crimes outside the walls. Lowry states while the majority of correctional officers are honest, the poor pay, lack of experience, and work conditions make prison officers more susceptible to corruption. Lowry states current politicians making the decision were short sided by not treating correctional officers with professional respect. Lack of loyalty and commitment creates an atmosphere for corruption. Lowry states it's not hard to look south of the border and see what a low wage criminal justice system gets you.
Lowry states every time he visits the Texas Capitol he is haunted by the words of AFSCME's former Beeville Union President Daniel Nagle, who stated in 1999 while on the Texas Capitol steps, "Someone will have to be killed before they do anything about the shortage of staff in Texas prisons." Two weeks later Officer Daniel Nagle was killed at the McConnel Prison Unit in Beeville by Inmate Robert Pruett who now awaits execution for the murder.