After prison breaks, guards feel the heat

High-profile inmate escapes nudge states to address an acute shortage of guards.

Wanted: people willing to be spit on, risk physical danger, and earn working-class salaries.

Given this job description, it's no surprise that the state of Texas - as well as several other states - is having trouble filling job openings for prison guards.

The hard realities of the post always make it difficult to recruit corrections officers. But the challenge is even graver today, as tenser prisons and continued low salaries do little to woo workers who have plenty of other employment options.

Yet the need for experienced guards is underscored by recent prison breaks - this week's escape of six inmates from an Alabama prison, and the dramatic pre-Christmas breakout of seven prisoners from a maximum-security unit in south Texas.

Among the reasons cited for the escapes: inadequate staffing and lack of experience among prison guards. Alabama prison Commissioner Mike Haley, for instance, said that on the day of the escape 188 guards were overseeing 1,300 inmates, six of whom slipped under security fences without guards noticing.

Now, too, the family of a police officer killed by the Texas fugitives is planning to sue the state, more to force prison-policy reform than for a financial award.

'I quit'

The escapes, and now the legal action, put a new spotlight on the responsibilities of guards - and the increasing problems they face inside prison walls. Indeed, the US turnover rate has climbed from 9.6 percent in 1991 to 15.4 percent in 1998. For new hires, the falloff rate is even higher: Nationwide, more than 1 in 5 new guards quits the job within the first year.

"When you have high turnover and low morale, that's reflected in the jailer-inmate relationship," says Viktor Olavson, a criminal defense lawyer in Austin.

After the escape from the John B. Connally unit in Texas on Dec. 13, three prison staff were disciplined for failing to follow procedures, and the warden was demoted. But some argue that blaming the staff is pointing the finger at the wrong culprit.

Much of the responsibility rests with state governments that keep guard salaries low, say guards and their supporters.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice acknowledges that low pay is the No. 1 reason corrections officers quit - and the Legislature is now considering a pay raise for them. Texas has the second-largest prison system, after California, but ranks 46th in the nation in pay. An experienced cook can make slightly more working in a Texas agency's cafeteria.

Nationally, average starting pay for a corrections officer is less than $22,000 a year. The average maximum is less than $35,000.

"I don't know any position in the free world that has the responsibility we do that gets paid what we get paid," says Capt. Ashley Anderson, head of security for the Travis State Jail near Austin. He oversees 172 security employees and nearly 1,000 inmates, has 14 years' experience, and makes $31,000 a year.

Low pay, in turn, contributes to high turnover and a guard shortage. Many of Texas's 114 units are understaffed, and the guard corps overall lacks experience. Often, one guard will be put in charge of nearly 200 prisoners for an eight-hour shift, in a prison without air-conditioning.

At the Travis jail, guards are surprised breakouts don't occur more often. "We're way outnumbered," says Officer Scott Sabine. "If they [inmates] want to take over, they will, even if they lose in the long run."

Guards fresh out of high school are responsible for keeping a unit on schedule for meals, searching for contraband, and pat-searching all inmates as they leave or enter living quarters. If an inmate misbehaves, a guard's only recourse is to file a report.

Cell blocks of disrespect

Nationwide, reports of inmate misconduct have trended steadily upward from 1991 to 1998, reflecting what guards characterize as a tougher prison population.

Alfred Janicek started as a Texas guard in 1977 and worked his way up to warden of the Travis State Jail. He says offenders today are more disrespectful of one another and guards.

"Convicts used to have an inmate code of conduct," he says. "Now, they're a whole new breed." He blames an American corporate culture that's willing to ignore society's have-nots.

Others, including one of the Texas inmates recaptured last week in Colorado Springs, Colo., say the trend toward longer sentences also has an effect on the prison population. "They're giving kids so much time that they will never get to see light again," Donald Newbury told a Colorado Springs reporter. "Their life is gone." Mr. Newbury is serving a 99-year sentence for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon.

State sentences are now generally longer than sentences in the federal penal system, characteristic of Texas's "get tough" approach to crime. And public outcry over a gruesome murder committed near Austin by a parolee several years ago led to tougher restrictions in parole rules.

Now inmates with long sentences are unsure how much time they'll serve."The last thing you want to do is to make a prison population desperate and hopeless," Mr. Olavson says. "Weird as it sounds, most prisoners are willing to pay their debt to society. But when the inmate feels their sentence is grossly unfair, then you have problems with prisoner attitudes."

Longer sentences and tougher parole brew frustration among inmates, agrees Warden Janicek. That, in turn, makes guards' jobs more difficult and dangerous - and could endanger the public. He marvels that his guard staff can make it on their low pay. "They're good, loyal, dedicated," he says. "There's nothing else holding them here."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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