Job Insecurity

For 13 hours, guard Jeanette Bledsoe wondered if she would see one more murder inside prison walls -- her own. Now she wants to make sure TDCJ protects those who protect us from society's rejects.

Thirteen hours later, at 5 a.m. the next day, the anti-death-penalty activists that Wilkerson and Guidry wanted to talk to finally arrived, and Wilkerson agreed to do as his father had said. He asked Bledsoe not to run when he released her, but when the door flew open she ran as fast as she could. Once she had cleared the dayroom door, she slowed down and took a look around. "When I walked out, it just made me sick at my stomach," she says. "When I walked out, all I saw was gray uniforms.They had stayed over. They did not go home. Gray uniforms all the way down the hall."

But that gray line isn't always as reassuring as it appeared on the morning Jeanette Bledsoe walked away from what could have been her last day on the job. In fact, the very weaknesses in that gray line may have contributed to her death row standoff in the first place. Correctional officers' union spokesman Brian Olsen says the guards are suffering from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's "blatant disregard for the safety and well-being of its employees." They are underpaid, undertrained, understaffed and in danger.

The whistle-blower: Charles Godwin has been demoted to "the administrative equivalent of solitary confinement."
Deron Neblett
The whistle-blower: Charles Godwin has been demoted to "the administrative equivalent of solitary confinement."
Ponchai Wilkerson's father told him to let Bledsoe go. Wilkerson was executed on March 14.
Ponchai Wilkerson's father told him to let Bledsoe go. Wilkerson was executed on March 14.

No one knows for sure how Ponchai Wilkerson escaped from his cell after Bledsoe had locked him inside, but it happens more often than the public might think. On March 26 the Corpus Christi Caller-Times quoted prison officials who reported that there had been 1,600 problems with locking mechanisms systemwide since September 1999. This number includes incidents of mechanical malfunction, inmate tampering and, most interesting, human error. Bledsoe says that Wilkerson was able to take her hostage because the picket boss, the guard who sits at a desk in the center of the pod and controls the opening of all the cell doors, made a mistake. "The inmate did not open that door. The maintenance man went over it and over it and over it with me," she says. "Either the picket boss opened that door by mistake, or it was never closed, and the picket boss was not paying attention to his lights. There's a red light on every cell that's open. It's a green light when they're all closed.And if you're in that picket, you better be paying attention, because those people out on that run -- their life is in your hands." To be fair, the picket boss told TDCJ officials that the control panel showed Wilkerson's door to be locked, and that he heard the inmate kick the cell door, which might have enabled him to open it. Nevertheless, Bledsoe is convinced that a better picket boss might have prevented Wilkerson from getting out of his cell in the first place. And there is little doubt that more guards on the pod might have kept the inmates from dragging Bledsoe into the dayroom.

But TDCJ has been having trouble attracting warm bodies to work in its prisons, much less quality officers. The largest state agency in Texas and the now largest prison system in the country is operating with a shortage of some 2,300 correctional officers; some prison units have more than 100 unstaffed positions. And the guards TDCJ does have are largely young, inexperienced and undertrained. In 1997, when the agency reached a correctional officer shortage of 1,000, it reduced training from 240 hours to 160 hours in order to get guards into prisons as quickly as possible. As a result, short shrift is given to important training topics such as use of force and defensive tactics. Charles Godwin, former director of training for TDCJ, says the department also has lowered its hiring standards. Correctional trainees used to have to score a 70 on each and every test. Now, trainees only have to average a passing grade, meaning they can fail some parts of the course work and still go to work in a unit. In 1998 alone, he says, there were 293 graduates who would not have been hired under prior policy. And according to Godwin, "when you have people who aren't ready and you get them out on the unit, they cause other problems."

TDCJ is not just struggling to attract and train good guards. The agency also seems unable to keep those with experience on staff. The turnover rate climbed from 12.9 percent in 1995 to 23.3 percent in fiscal year 2000. In fact, some say the prison system is losing approximately 450 officers a month and that it's able to hire only about 400 to replace them. (TDCJ officials claim they are hiring more officers than they're losing.) Texas Board of Criminal Justice President Mac Stringfellow blames the shortage and high attrition rate on a strong economy: "They can go and get jobs in manufacturing or in the oil well business or in construction," he says. "When construction and the oil and gas business are having problems, then we have plenty of applicants, and the converse is true."

The solution would seem to be to raise the pay for correctional officers. The starting salary for COs in Texas is just $18,924, and the pay tops out at $28,380 after three years, nowhere near the national average of $34,000 a year. The Legislative Budget Board did approve an emergency raise of $138 a month effective July 1 of this year, but only officers who had worked for TDCJ for three years without probation were eligible for the increase. And officers say that a recent hike in insurance rates means they don't even see that extra money.

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