Yesterday morning in Lubbock, someone rushed up to me, PDA in hand, to share a story from the Austin Statesman's Mike Ward that any regular Grits reader should have seen coming ("Youth prisons halt overtime, Oct. 30"):
It's easy to see how this happened, and it was predictable as the sunrise. SB 103 required TYC to staff dorm facilities with a minimum 12-1 staff to youth ratio, compared to a 24-1 ratio when the West Texas sex scandal broke earlier this year. Most observers blame high staffing ratios directly for increased abuse at TYC in recent years. (As an aside: a couple of different directors of county detention facilities told me they keep 8-1 ratios during waking hours, though another told me he had difficulty keeping staffed at 12-1.)
In its latest official stumble, the Texas Youth Commission spent more than half of its yearly budget for overtime payments in just one month, and it will temporarily stop paying overtime to its 2,200 guards.
Officials confirmed Monday that the agency spent $735,933 on overtime for correctional officers in September — about 55 percent of the $1.3 million that the Youth Commission expected to spend in an entire year.
As a result, the agency's acting executive director, Dimitria Pope, has suspended all overtime payments effective Wednesday "until controls are verified at each facility for ensuring critical needs for the continuing high usage," according to an internal memo from Pope.
So the Lege mandated TYC to keep more staff on the floor, particularly in dormitories. Reducing the number of youth incarcerated at TYC by about 1/3 helped some, but not enough to reach 12-1, mostly because the agency continues to hemorrhage staff. As the New York Times reported October 16:
State officials say chronic job vacancy rates and critical employee turnover are at the root of many of the system’s problems. Employee terminations since September 2006 have far outpaced recruitment. The agency has hired 870 juvenile corrections officers since September 2006 to October 2007. In that period 1,241 officers left their positions, or about half the juvenile corrections officers.With that kind of turnover still occurring, it's inconceivable on its face that TYC could meet new staffing ratios for JCOs. (The agency's staff turnover rate hovers around 50% per year.) The Mart facility, for example, is currently about 145 JCO's short. Even though the agency has fewer kids incarcerated overall, TYC closed three units earlier this year, which means kids from those facilities now must be housed elsewhere.
In August, Ms. Pope informed the Legislature staffing ratios at TYC facilities complied with the new statutory mandates. I didn't believe it when she said it, but to the extent that claim was remotely accurate, widespread use of overtime clearly was the only way it could happen. Now we see that adequately staffing TYC probably can't occur within the appropriated budget, a fact which should have been a major concern for the new administration long before this late juncture. As Rep. Debbie Riddle said at the time, "We're tending the flowers around the house while the house is caving in."