Can We Get Some Help Here?

by Mike Powers

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is in some deep trouble, and what’s new about that, right? But the kind of trouble I’m talking about could shut this place down without a federal judge ever having to lift a finger. The state prison system is imploding from the inside out, because in the State’s booming economy they can’t find anyone willing to work for the compensation packages and wages that they offer.

People, I’m talking about a State job here. You know. Working for the government, and all that. You have to know that the way TDCJ conducts its business must be bad if it’s so ugly that they can’t even lure people to come work here with government benefits and big fat sign-on bonuses.

The problem has been evident for a long while in different aspects of our prison life. For instance, for the 15 years I’ve been incarcerated, there has ALWAYS been an incredibly high turnover rate, even when the economy was in a free-fall. But, at least at that time, the job would attract reasonably skilled employees to come and be a part of the System. Yes, there were always a good number of GED graduates who didn’t have any additional work training, but even these workers could bring basic math and reading skills to the table and be expected to show up for work during their assigned duty times. Over the years, however, this has changed.

More and more, the dearth in the labor pool is bringing out people completely unsuited to this kind of work-social misfits who see working in the prison system as some kind of opportunity to get some payback on those they perceive as responsible for the bullying they suffered while they were in junior high or nascent Rambo-like wannabees who will someday go on to bigger and better things like shooting innocents at a Walmart. And the impact this is having on the daily life of us prisoners is also increasingly apparent.

And the Stevenson Unit, where I resided for almost 11 years of this sentence, I was told by reliable sources that at one point, they were forced to close two whole buildings and ship around 700 inmates to other facilities while they tried to rebuild the security staff. This was an almost direct result of Warden Castro’s mismanagement of the staff and the skimpy pool of potential labor. Most of the people working “the trenches” in the TDCJ hardly even WANT to work, so they sure aren’t going to hang around and be whipping boys for some crazy tyrant’s power thrusting.

And the Stevenson Unit isn’t the only place where there are problems. This is a state-wide crisis, and having been on or through six units in the last two years, you can see it everywhere. On the privately-run Diboll Unit, where the atmosphere couldn’t be more friendly and the job-description less taxing, they were always looking for more help and working double shifts to fill up the holes in the schedule.

In Huntsville, where the prison system is the dominant local industry on which the community economy depends, they were having to shop for labor in the migrant worker sector, employing an increasing number of Nigerians just as the Houston-area prisons had been doing. Please understand me when I say that having Nigerian immigrants work a Texas prison is like asking freshly-indoctrinated, pardon me, educated Chinese nationals to come into American schools and teach government and civics. (Ah, civics, couldn’t we use a lot more of THAT in our schools these days?) In either scenario, it is a strange fit, but that’s exactly what is happening to prisons all along the Gulf Coast of Texas and increasingly in the heartland of the Lone Star State.

I’d like to point out the obvious, here. IF Texas just HAS to have other country’s citizens come in and work some of its least desirable jobs, wouldn’t it make a hell of a lot more sense to be looking towards Mexico and Central America then across the ocean to Nigeria? For one thing, documented Mexican workers are already HERE and available for work. For another, they are much more familiar with U.S. customs and language, and we with theirs. Please don’t get your feathers in a ruffle about racism. That has nothing to do with the argument I’m trying to make here. I’m saying it makes a lot more sense to go with potential workers who are immediately available for work and much more familiar with the way things are done in Texas. Now I can hear someone out there saying, “Oh sure, put the cartels in charge of Texas prisons.” Well, first off, if a Mexican national is in the U.S. already, he was probably trying to get AWAY from the drug violence, not export it. But even if this isn’t the case, do you think the Nigerians are coming over here without hidden agendas? Who do you think is running the prostitution rings at the Dirty Darrington and stealing the Hep-C cures? Here’s a hint... It AIN’T the cartels.

Another effect of this shortage is that inmates are being locked in their cells more often. Yesterday, on a Saturday, the Hightower Unit was locked down because they didn’t have enough security staff to satisfy the safety requirements. This has happened several times in the last month, and it amazes me all the more, because we see about ten to twenty trainees come through here every single week. How can you have that many people apply and train, and still not be able to fill the gaps?

And finally, surprisingly, the shortage has affected the most sensitive area of all to a prisoner, except visitation. Because the TDCJ Commissary Department can’t find CDL drivers to deliver the inventory, our store purchases are suffering greatly. There’s little or no stock on the shelves to buy, and what there is to buy is strictly rationed. If any of you have forgotten what stores looked like in Soviet Russia, come get a peek at a state-run economy. It’s like Bernie Sanders has been the commissary czar down here.

With Texas, and especially minority, employment at historic lows, the prospects for any change in the near-future don’t look good.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez