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Recruiting bonuses attracting correctional officers to understaffed units

Two cadets, standing, talk to a correctional officer and trainer during a role playing exercise.
Cadets Wallace Evans, standing at left, and Richard Pascual role play as a correctional officer and sergeant during pre-service training in Gatesville.

Photo by Jene Robbins

Noel Lopez’s graduation from the Minnie R. Houston Training Facility in Huntsville in September came with a bonus – a $1,500 bonus. Lopez was one of 30 graduates who was eligible to receive the bonus for agreeing to work at an understaffed TDCJ facility after their training.

“It was a bit of a factor,” she said about how the bonus offered since last April affected her decision to join TDCJ as a correctional officer. “It will help me out a lot. I have a lot of bills that I need to get paid.”

Through October 2008, 1,322 recruitment bonus checks had been mailed to new or returning correctional officers who had taken the incentive TDCJ is offering as a way to boost staffing levels at 16 designated facilities. After taxes, the officers generally net between $1,050 and $1,100 each.

To receive the one-time bonus, eligible employees must graduate from a TDCJ pre-service academy or be a direct hire. Retirees accepting the bonus must have waited one full calendar month before returning to work, and all other former agency employees must wait one year from the time they left to be eligible. In return for the bonus, eligible employees sign a contract on the last day of their pre-service training that obligates them to remain at one of the designated understaffed correctional facilities for one year. If they leave before then, the employees must return all or a prorated portion of the bonus to the agency. In October, 121 bonus checks were being repaid because the officers who received them had left before the end of one year.

The prospect of having to repay the $1,500 bonus was the main reason Paula Hardilek decided not to take it when she hired on a correctional officer at the understaffed Estelle Unit in Huntsville last September. She had recently earned a college degree in criminal justice and didn’t plan on working as a correctional officer for long.

“I have a degree and I’m still searching for jobs in probation or parole,” she said. “So I didn’t want to take the bonus, find a job, and then have to pay it back.”

Hardilek, however, was the only eligible member of her pre-service class at the Houston training facility to decline the bonus. Twenty-five others were not eligible because they had either been assigned to non-designated units or were going to be working only part-time.

Unlike Hardilek, Owen Spencer of Houston said he was looking forward to a long career as a TDCJ security officer. He was originally assigned to the Byrd Unit in Huntsville but later asked to go to the Ferguson Unit in Midway, where he would automatically become eligible for the bonus. He said he would be using part of it as a down payment on a car to replace the rental he was then driving.

“I’ve got two kids, so it’s already been spent,” said Casimir Rudziewicz, a Dilley resident who worked as a TDCJ correctional officer in Huntsville and Cotulla before leaving the agency in 2005.

Cadets standing at attention while correctional officer gives instruction.

Recruit Nytro Hawkins, left, listens to instructions from Sgt. Grover Goodwell on the firing range at the Minnie R. Houston Training Facility in Huntsville. Hawkins plans to share her $1,500 bonus with her church.

Photo by David Nunnelee

Rudziewicz said he decided to return to the correctional ranks at the McConnell Unit in Beeville partly because his wife recently deployed to Iraq as a U.S. Army soldier. He said he’ll probably transfer to a unit in Gatesville upon her return to Fort Hood in Killeen but will work at the understaffed McConnell facility during her yearlong absence.

“It influenced me to go to McConnell,” he said about the bonus he would be receiving for going to an understaffed unit. “Fifteen hundred dollars is a pretty good amount.”

Lopez said her sister’s 7 years as a correctional officer at TDCJ’s Lychner Unit near Humble also influenced her decision to sign on with the agency. She initially planned on working at Lychner with her sister but asked that she be assigned to the understaffed Estelle Unit after visiting the facility on a training exercise.

When filling out a job application, potential recruits can identify three units or geographical regions where they would prefer to work. The Human Resources Division then assigns them to a unit based on the availability of jobs at units in the areas they identify. But why not just assign the greatest number of graduates to units with the greatest staffing needs regardless of preference?

“Typically, when you send someone where they don’t want to be, they tend not to be happy, so they tend not to stay there and we lose them” said Major Troy Selman of the Houston training facility. “With the bonuses, I think we’ve identified a way to attract people’s interest to areas where we have a little trouble getting their interest. Usually, the areas where we have problems have some geographic issues. A lot of times they’re a little farther away from major towns of significant populations. So these bonuses give us an incentive to attract folks to those areas.”

Selman said he suspects that most veteran officers welcome the recruits receiving bonuses since their very presence means that less overtime will be worked at the understaffed units, resulting in more time off for everyone and less staff fatigue overall.

“If you look at the overtime savings and the fatigue levels on some of those facilities, I think it pays for itself,” Selman said.

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Job cuts at UTMB don’t affect offender health care services

While closure of the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston due to damage from Hurricane Ike in September disrupted the delivery of health care services to TDCJ offenders, the subsequent loss of up to 3,800 jobs at the hospital was not expected to adversely affect the agency, a UTMB official said.

The decision by University of Texas regents to cut nearly one-third of the UTMB work force came two months after Hurricane Ike inundated much of Galveston Island and shut down UTMB’s 500-bed hospital with damages estimated at $710 million. University officials later announced that the hospital would be downsized to 200 beds.

TDCJ offenders housed in the eastern half of the state receive a wide range of health care services from more than 200 contracted employees in a seven-story prison hospital connected to the UTMB complex but not accessible to the public. The Texas Tech School of Medicine in Lubbock provides services to offenders housed at prison facilities in the western half of the state. None of the UTMB positions related to offender health care were affected by the workforce reduction, said Owen Murray, UTMB vice-president for Correctional Managed Health Care.

While Hospital Galveston remained closed, the more than 300 security officers assigned there were reassigned to units of their choice in Dayton, Beaumont and Texas City. UTMB, meanwhile, contracted with community hospitals to provide TDCJ with emergency care, specialty care and acute hospitalization services. The University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Tyler provided 60 beds for TDCJ offenders, and the missions of the agency’s regional medical facilities in Huntsville and Texas City were expanded to include on-site specialty care clinics conducted by UTMB physicians.

Health Services Division Director Dr. Lannette Linthicum said UTMB obstetricians from Galveston traveled to the Crain Unit in Gatesville and the Plane Unit in Dayton to provide prenatal care to pregnant offenders while Hospital Galveston remained out of service. With Hospital Galveston not available, deliveries were being performed at a Waco hospital affiliated with the Scott and White Clinic, she said. Also, offenders suffering from cancer were moved to medical facilities in the Huntsville area, where contracts for radiation therapy and chemotherapy had been established with treatment centers.

Murray said UTMB hoped to first reopen 32 beds for TDCJ offenders and then bring the total number of beds up to 108 over time. As more beds become available, offenders are to be transported back to Galveston from hospitals across the state where they had been receiving care while UTMB remained closed.

Murray said that all the specialty clinics available to TDCJ were again operational at UTMB by mid-November with the exception of the radiation oncology clinic. Radiation services were instead being provided to offenders in Huntsville, he said.

Murray said jobs related to prisoner health care, including the providing of pediatric services to pregnant female offenders, may actually increase with the downsizing of UTMB.

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