Unless you are living it, you don’t know the incredible sense of helplessness felt by a Texas County Detention Officer as they clock into their workplace. It’s stressful, tense, loud, and smells like the blend of nursing home/gymnasium with the emphasis being on the undesirable blend odor of either, or both. I don’t work there, but I have walked the mile (location redacted so the employees aren’t fired, and for the record, it is not the county or facility where my brave son-in-law is an officer.) I’ve done walkthrough visits with county employees many times. More in patrol briefing rooms for show-ups but more than five actual jails. My last time to walk beside a County Jail D.O. was for a magazine article. Things were definitely better just a few years ago. 

Imagine the old black and white photos of cotton mills of the South with the tired, haggard faces, the factories in the North where children used to be chained to their work station so they wouldn’t wander off to play. These are the images that invented labor unions. Those conditions are back in the large, Texas urban county jails, just with heating and air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and the snack/soda break room. 

Thank God for Supreme Court rulings that gave inmates rights to humane treatment because the unintended consequence has been CLEAT’s push for professional standards for those employees working the floors. We’re also grateful for the Texas Jail Standards Commission and the statutory authority to regulate the conditions for the inmates or things would be worse, jails would get whatever remnants of the county budget were left over. Thank goodness for CLEAT and our many past political and legal fights to regulate the inmate/officer ratio. Were it not for our few successes in Collective Bargaining, Sheriff’s Civil Service, and our insatiable push for higher standards for employees, things would be much, much worse.

Many of our battles for county employees have been the politically ugly tasks of killing bad bills and amendments brought by legislators (sometimes unwittingly) that would weaken just plain decent gains over the years. It’s difficult to find a clear path to raise pay or create a step system in county jails when the other side is constantly longing to take us back to 1950’s style of standards. 

But our legislative successes like local adoption of 20-year retirement (which was fought tooth and nail by 254 County Sheriffs, the Texas Association of Counties, and the Texas Urban League of Counties) doesn’t help an employee who goes to work not knowing when they will be allowed to go home. Let that sink in.

The D.O. I walked with today has to make the rounds of the cells within a very few minutes. The pace was frenetic. I walked to the side to observe, but would not become the focus of the inmates or cause him to slow down his pace. He was very experienced, in good physical condition, but walked at a very fast pace. His eyes were constantly roving the inside of the cell for something wrong, something out of place, or some sign of trouble. Inmates spoke to him, acknowledged him and he even was able to answer a question about some condition without breaking his stride. He has to be recorded electronically as being at that cell. He has to complete all the cells in a few minutes (I’m leaving out the actual details for security purposes.) Once he had to pause to complete an interaction with an inmate. He was warning them of unacceptable behavior. His entire convo was done on the move. He actually was looking over his shoulder to witness compliance while continuing on to his next cell to complete the computerized interaction. Simply watching this created stress. 

He later told me of cases where inmates caused him to be forced to slow down enough to deal with their problems. He has been disciplined only once for not getting the rounds done in time. There are often conflicts between inmates, sometimes medical issues arise, and “everything is working against you staying on schedule.” 

Skeleton crews, staffing shortages, no backup to be called for emergencies on the floor, supervisors having to actually cover a shift themselves create a constant tension inside the workplace. He hasn’t had COVID yet, but three crewmates have, several inmates have. He’s worried about his immune system because of being stressed and fatigued all the time. Yes, he’s actually worked 24 hours before. 

The employees that I spent time with today told me that mandatory overtime has ruined their lives. One female said that her mother has moved across the country to live near her for the sole purpose of providing child care. She never knows what shifts will be added, when she will be allowed to go home, or when she will be called back to work. She feels incredibly guilty “for ruining my mother’s retirement and freedom and golden years.” Others who spoke with me said it’s much worse because they don’t have the luxury of a family support system and are constantly searching for child care since they’ve been rejected services because of the unknown hours and their inability to pick up their children on time. 

A female D.O. wept when she said she had never had so much income but doesn’t have the time to shop for a reliable car. One said her toddler didn’t know her, thinks she is a stranger, and ran away from her.

Another says she is married to another D.O., and they never see one another. 

“We’re trapped. We have no other skills, there are lots of folks without a job so we are afraid to even think about quitting or even calling in sick. We’d be fired.” 

One officer says that she’s stopped grocery shopping. On her last day off, she realized everything in the refrigerator was out of date because she just eats at work or drives thru somewhere between her apartment and the jail.

These folks say they regularly wonder how much longer they can take the stress. 

Although these folks were polite and wished me well on trying to help change the circumstances, they certainly didn’t seem to have much confidence that politicians will listen or even care. I’m generally an optimist, but today, I’m having a hard time in not sharing their hopelessness. 

Police reformers are yelling about police unions and law enforcement personnel, but I don’t see them talking about inmate overcrowding or the working conditions of the people working in the jails. The sons and daughters of political wealth and privilege will converge on the Capitol, raise their right hands, and take an oath in January. CLEAT will remind them that reform might begin by lowering the inmate/jailer ratio. We will remind them that forcing someone to work 24 hours is involuntary servitude. We will talk about a minimum wage for law enforcement personnel.

The counties will be there using taxpayer money to counter everything I say. They are so bulletproof that these private organizations like the Texas Association of Counties have secretly passed laws that put them into the taxpayer-funded retirement systems. Yes, you heard correctly. The rich lobbyists fighting against CLEAT are in the same retirement system as the jailers they are overworking and underpaying. Yep, TCDRS.

We’ve had some victories over the years chipping away at what seems at times as an impenetrable wall of power and entitlement. It’s time to turn up the heat.

Story By: The Charley Sector/CLEAT

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