This story has been updated throughout with information provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Faced with a shortage of correctional officers, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is requiring officers from Hidalgo County to work in Karnes County — about 200 miles away.
More than 20 officers concerned about the mandatory, weeklong rotations in Karnes County met with state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, on Sept. 6. They were joined by an advocate for the officers: conservative activist Arminda Garza, who’s running for justice of the peace as a Republican.
The controversy started when Warden Rodger Bowers, who supervises the Manuel A. Segovia Unit and Reynoldo V. Lopez State Jail in Hidalgo County, asked for volunteers to work at the John B. Connally Unit in Karnes County.
Volunteers from Hidalgo County started working at the Connally Unit in March.
Employing enough officers to properly staff the Connally Unit, which is located near the city of Kenedy, is a persistent problem for the department.
“They can’t recruit people fast enough,” Hinojosa said, adding that oilfield jobs come with better pay and working conditions. “Rather than work at a jail that’s not air-conditioned.”
About 32 percent of the officer positions at the Connally Unit remain vacant. To support the Connally Unit, the department asked for volunteers.
Officers from Beeville, Hondo and San Diego rotated through, but the Connally Unit remained understaffed.
“If the staff shortage is prolonged, the agency uses staff from local units on a day by day basis. If there are no local units or local units are equally short staffed, the agency transports staff from the nearest unit. If the need arises, the agency uses correctional staff from units across the state. Staff are sent for a full rotation (generally 4 to 6 days), provided an agency vehicle, housed in local hotels, and paid a per diem for their travel time,” according to a statement from department Communications Director Jeremy Desel. “Volunteers are utilized first, but if volunteer relief is insufficient, it becomes mandatory.”
According to the officers, mandatory rotations started on Sept. 7. Desel, though, stated that mandatory rotations would start on Sept. 19 unless more officers volunteered.
The announcement immediately sparked complaints. Officers who met with the state senators said they were concerned about coworkers who couldn’t spend a week away from home.
“One female officer who has breast cancer (was not present at the meeting) expressed her concerns about not being able to make it to her chemo treatments,” according to a memo prepared by Roxanne De La Garza, the legislative director for Hinojosa. “And she was told that it wasn’t their problem.
According to the officers, management also dismissed concerns about a father who couldn’t leave his daughters behind.
“Another officer is currently a single parent to his two small daughters,” according to the memo. “His wife was deported and he expressed concerns about not having anyone to look after them. He was told to figure something out.”
Contacted by the Progress Times, the department refused to make the warden available for an interview.
Hinojosa and Lucio asked the department for a written response.
“Given the immediate need, the TDCJ is utilizing staff from the Lopez State Jail and the Segovia Unit to work at the prison in Kenedy,” according to a letter from department Executive Director Bryan Collier to Hinojosa and Lucio. “Employees are assigned to work one of their work cycles per month at the Connally Unit. Ten officers per shift are temporarily assigned to the facility. Consideration is given to those who have personal, medical and family circumstances that arise. Also, these officers working in Kenedy are provided hotel accommodations and a daily per diem.”
After writing the letter, Hinojosa met with Collier in Austin.
The department needs to communicate better with officers, Hinojosa said, adding that he asked Collier to address the situation with the warden and regional managers.
Collier assured him the department would accommodate officers with special circumstances and wouldn’t retaliate against anyone who contacted the senators about the situation.
“Correctional officer is a very difficult job,” Hinojosa said, adding that they also discussed orientation and training for officers who aren’t familiar with the Connally Unit. “They can’t just throw them in there, to the wolves.”