AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A union for correctional officers in Texas says understaffing is putting guards at increased risk, especially around the holidays, during what has already been the deadliest year inside state prisons in more than a decade.
Union leaders want better pay for the nearly 5,000 correctional officers working for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The agency lost about 500 guard positions after lawmakers slashed the state budget last year, according to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Correctional Employees.
The base salary for a first-year correctional officer in Texas is about $28,000. After seven years on the job, guards make about $37,000 annually before overtime.
Between budget cuts and retention difficulties, the union claims the agency is 2,700 guards short and says understaffing is putting officers at heightened risk. There have been at least 10 inmate-on-inmate killings inside Texas prisons this year, up from three in 2011.
There were five in 2010 and just one in 2009, according to agency figures.
Union leaders say the dangers inside lockups are amplified around the holidays.
"During the holidays, TDCJ employees aren't the only ones wishing they were at home," said Lance Lowry, a local union president. "Correctional officers have to be on high alert during the holidays because there is a greater risk of suicides and escapes throughout Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's."
State prison officials did not immediately return a phone message Friday. As of September, none of the killings inside prisons occurred in units where the agency is experiencing chronic difficulties filling corrections officer vacancies.
Last month, the union sent a letter to Gov. Rick Perry asking that he support an immediate 3.5 percent cost of living raise for correctional officers. The letter goes on to ask for a combined 14 percent raise over the next four years.
This year's homicide total is a far cry from the wave of violence that swept a much smaller Texas corrections department in the 1980s.
In 1985, 27 inmates were killed and hundreds of others hurt in attacks at a time when Texas prisons housed only about one-fourth of the more than 150,000 convicts now incarcerated. Since then, Texas spent more than $1 billion in prison construction and now has the nation's largest state prison system.