• SLIDESHOW See how prisons are hanging onto guards

  • Sgt. Pablo Fernandez leads a correctional officer training class at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's William G. McConnell Unit in Beeville. In South Texas, where the energy boom has sparked an explosion of high-wage job growth, finding and keeping prison employees has become difficult.

  • At the McConnell Unit, the turnover rate skyrocketed from 28 percent in 2006 to 62 percent in 2012, according to TDCJ data. As turnover spiked, so did the rate of violent incidents in the prison. Attracting and training new prison guards is a constant challenge.

  • The desperation to retain employees has prompted an unusual approach. The McConnell Unit and nearby Garza East and Garza West units are offering dirt-cheap on-campus housing — as low as $25 a month — to make the cost of living manageable for employees, like corrections officer Jason Allen.

  • Listen:

    The housing is on the site of the former Chase Field Naval Air Station. Allen shares a room in the military base’s old bachelor officer quarters. Despite lawmakers’ approval in 2013 of a 5 percent pay bump for corrections officers and the TDCJ’s efforts to increase recruiting with bonuses and housing perks, agency officials say the state can’t compete with what energy companies pay.

  • These days, the top salary for a corrections officer is less than $39,000 per year. An entry-level officer makes about $29,220. By comparison, a truck driver hauling water to the disposal wells used in the fracking process can earn $1,500 per week or more, about $78,000 per year.

  • The living quarters aren't glamorous, but they're much more affordable than the rent in nearby towns, which has doubled in some areas because of the increased demand for well-paid oilfield workers. Having the housing available on-site allows TDCJ to recruit workers from far away.

  • In some cases, prison employees — like these workers grilling on their day off — live in on-site RV parks for $25 a month.

  • Some of the guards work four-day weeks, staying on campus, and then take four days off, returning to their homes and families in San Antonio or South Texas.

  • There’s already a waiting list for the 188 bachelor officer quarters on the prison campus.

  • This housing crunch is a challenge for prisons near shale deposits and the refineries that process the oil. “We can’t compete with the private sector in these critical areas,” said Bill Stevens, the director of TDCJ’s correctional institutions division.

  • It’s not only about wages; officers and prison condition experts say the horrendous working environment that guards face contributes to their high turnover rate.

  • That turnover rate creates a domino effect that makes it even more difficult to retain prison staff: The remaining officers must put in longer hours, and the lower guard-to-inmate ratio means violence among offenders grows.

  • The TDCJ currently has more than 3,000 corrections officer vacancies throughout its 109 prison units, even after the closure in 2013 of two privately run facilities. Statewide, the agency has left roughly 1,400 prison beds empty since 2012 because of staff shortages.

  • TDCJ officials say what they're trying in South Texas is working — and that they're going to be rolling out similar initiatives in other hard-to-hire regions.

In Oil-Rich Regions, a Struggle to Pay — and Keep — Prison Guards

Turnover among corrections officers has been on the rise statewide for years. But in the Eagle Ford Shale, where the energy boom has sparked an explosion of high-wage job growth and a rush on rental housing, it’s an even bigger challenge.

This desperation to retain employees has prompted an unusual approach at some South Texas prison units, which are offering dirt-cheap on-campus housing — as low as $25 a month — to make the cost of living in nouveau riche communities manageable for their employees. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice hopes to offer similar options at prison units across Texas’ oil-rich regions.

Bee County

Prison Guard Turnover Rate

Year McConnell Unit Statewide Average
2010 37% 16%
2011 47% 18%
2012 62% 20%
2013 56% 21%
Source: Texas Department of Criminal Justice