McLennan County eyes roll up as jail vacancies go unfilled and population grows | Local government and politics

The prison population is growing in McLennan County, but jailers are in short supply. The prison has 92 vacancies, candidates are not asking for jobs there and commissioners may consider cutting 40 positions.

Prison officials say a solution may include a 10% pay rise and an incentive package that could put $5,000 in the pockets of new jailers.

“We are entering a strange market,” said prison lieutenant David Ives. “We used to compete with law enforcement for personnel. Now we compete with Amazon and Chick-fil-A. We desperately need. Come see us.

“Not only is pay an issue, but we’re talking about working weekends, holidays, nights in a less than ideal environment, with some of the worst people in the community. But we still have to provide care.

Last week, the county reported 1,395 inmates, down from 1,285 in a comparable week in July a year ago and 1,103 two years ago. Prison staff last week equated to 5.4 inmates per jailer or prison corporal, above the 4.64 inmates per staff member last July and the 4.07 inmates per staff member in July 2020.

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Asked about the stated goals of reducing prison numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic, County Administrator Dustin Chapman said via email, “COVID hasn’t stopped criminal activity, and we have the duty to accommodate arrested persons”.

Entry-level jailers in McLennan County earn $42,983 a year. County jail officials, including Ives and jail major Pam Whitlock, proposed in a letter to commissioners that all jailers and jail corporals receive a 10% increase in base pay. The letter says the county’s tiered system of increasing salary with longevity would not be changed. The estimated cost of this step is $1.5 million, including the budgeted 357 Jailer and Jail Corporal positions.

But prison officials have asked commissioners to consider cutting 40 budgeted prison positions, leaving 317, Ives said. More than 50 budgeted positions would remain vacant, but prison officials say the chances of filling them would improve with raises and bonuses.

The incentives would include $2,500 upon graduation from the prison academy and $2,500 upon completion of the first year of service. Anyone employed by the sheriff’s office in the past 24 months would not qualify.

“These are slots we just can’t fill, and empty slots don’t do us any good,” Ives said. “Our failure to fill these slots means that taxpayers’ money is not being used, and it will never be used at the wages we are paying.”

Ives said he understands the commissioners will act on the salary increase request as they consider possible cost-of-living adjustments for all county employees in the next budget year. Budget discussions have begun.

Prison staff turnover hit a 5-year high while the number of applicants hit a five-year low, according to the county’s human resources department. The county received 159 applications for jailer positions, a 44% drop from 284 applications at the same time last year.

“The prison has lost 48 staff since the start of the year,” according to a letter submitted to commissioners last week. “At this time last year, the number of employees leaving their jobs was 33. This is a 45% increase in the number of employees leaving.”

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said labor shortages have become common nationwide and prison hiring presents more challenges.

“People think about their careers. They want something that matches their abilities and want to be respected for doing it,” Felton said. “Some cities have made the bad judgment that law enforcement may be part of the problem. In my opinion, this is 180 degrees wrong. But does this affect hiring? I don’t see how it could not affect him to some extent.

“One request we received includes incentives to hire people now, to curb turnover and recruit new people.”

In a related matter, the Texas Department of Juvenile Justice announced Friday that it is addressing high staff turnover and shortages “with a permanent 15% wage increase for direct care staff, effective of July 1, 2022”.

The Texas Department of Juvenile Justice wage increases follow the recent halt in the admission of new juvenile inmates to the state’s five juvenile prisons, in response to difficulties in providing adequate supervision in the state’s establishments. The move leaves children longer in county-level facilities that lack the specialized programs provided in public facilities.

The increases will apply to juvenile corrections officers, dormitory supervisors, case managers and supervisors of case managers, cooks, food service managers, youth safety managers, parole officers and parole supervisors, according to a news release. The increases make permanent a temporary wage hike instituted as an emergency measure in April.

Juvenile corrections officers will see their annual starting salaries increase from $36,238 to $41,700, according to the news release.

“TJJD management recognizes that this is not the only solution, but believes that making salaries more competitive will solve the immediate crisis of high turnover and begin to stabilize the agency’s workforce,” the agency said. Acting Executive Director Shandra Carter in the press release.

Reinstatement enrichment programs will be postponed to free up money for raises.

“The agency is funding these increases through cost savings realized on vacant positions and de-prioritization of other planned expenses,” the press release said.