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Special unit-based training academies help boost staffing levels

Row of Correctional officers
Dorothy Wallace was among the first class of graduates at the Polunsky Unit.

Photos by David Nunnelee

For the longest time, Dorothy Wallace wanted to be like her older sister and work as a correctional officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. But with three young children at home, the single mother couldn’t leave her hometown of Livingston for nearly six weeks to train for the job at the agency’s regional academy in Huntsville.

Turns out, she didn’t have to. Wallace learned late last year that the Polunsky Unit was about to hold its own training academy right there in her hometown. She quickly applied for a position, and in February, graduated with 63 other officers, most of whom are now working at Polunsky.

“This is something I’ve always wanted to do but something I couldn’t do because the training was in Huntsville,” Wallace said. “So the academy here has really been a blessing.”

Like Wallace, hundreds of correctional officers now working for TDCJ never had to leave home to train for their jobs. They, too, are graduates of a growing number of special unit-based pre-service training academies being held around the state.

“We’ve really expanded our unit-based academies over the last year, and the reason is our staff shortage,” said Correctional Training and Development Director Michael Upshaw, noting that in late November 2007, TDCJ had approximately 3,750 correctional officer positions vacant.

“There’s no single factor or reason for the continued staffing challenges,” Executive Director Brad Livingston recently reported to the Board of Criminal Justice. “Certainly, the strength of the Texas economy has highlighted the challenges in this regard…. We are tackling this challenge, and we will continue to tackle this challenge on several fronts.”

The unit-based academies are at one front. During fiscal year 2007, the agency held 27 special pre-service academy classes that produced 860 correctional officers over and above the 4,600 that graduated from the six regional academies. The special academies were held primarily at outlying units, including a number located in West Texas and the Panhandle. During the first five months of fiscal year 2008, the agency had graduated 17 special academy classes and had 20 more scheduled through August.

Also, in January, the training department condensed the time between the start of classes at five of its six regional academies from three weeks to two weeks. Upshaw said the narrowing is meant to retain those who agree to join TDCJ but then find employment elsewhere before they’re able to start an academy.

“The goal of the training department is make an academy available for anyone who has met the criteria and wants to work for us,” Upshaw said. “My goal is to make sure that we can get them into an academy as quickly as we possibly can.”

Polunsky academy exceeds expectations

The Gib Lewis Unit in Woodville graduated its first academy class in March 2007 and has since graduated two more. The Polunsky Unit started its first unit-based academy in January and had another scheduled for early July. The Eastham Unit near Lovelady also planned on holding a special academy to help ease its security staffing shortage.

Warden Simmons said the first-ever academy put together by Maj. Joe Smith far exceeded expectations. Instead of just a handful of recruits, the academy attracted 75 eligible candidates from Livingston and the surrounding area.

“We said if we can do a class that has 20 people in it, we’ll figure that a success,” Simmons said. “We put out flyers and put up signs and came out here the night of the hiring seminar not sure that anybody was going to show up. But the cars just kept coming in. That one class cut our shortage in half just like that.”

Ted Hyde drove in from Lufkin for the hiring seminar and is now working the second shift at Polunsky.

“I saw the flyer and came down here,” said Hyde, who once worked briefly as a correctional officer at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. “But had it been Huntsville, I wouldn’t have because of the drive.”

Lewis Unit Senior Warden Greg Dawson said the special academies there have boosted his staffing levels by approximately 20 percent.

“It’s increased our staffing percentage dramatically,” he said. “We’re still working on our attrition problem, but we’re getting our head above water. Our recruiting is surpassing our attrition, so we’re actually gaining.”

Local placement guaranteed

Unit wardens like Dawson and Simmons say they recruit locally through flyers, media interviews, and speaking engagements. And while recruits attending a regional academy can express a preference for placement, those recruited and trained locally are guaranteed a job in their hometown if so desired.

“Our sales pitch is that we provide a good, steady income, and we tell them that we’ll recruit them locally, we’ll interview them locally, we’ll train them locally, and we’ll work them locally,” Warden Dawson said. “We are recruiting employees to work at the Gib Lewis Unit. That is a guarantee we’ve been able to make to them, and it’s worked.”

“The other thing unit-based pre-service academies classes allow us to do is to make it convenient for our in-coming employees,” Upshaw added. “ For some of them, to leave their family for 5 1/2 weeks is difficult. So if we can bring that academy to them, we will draw that employee whereas we wouldn’t if we take them away from their home for that period of time. There are probably a good number of those employees who had they not been able to go to the academy in their hometown and been guaranteed to be assigned to the unit in their hometown probably would never have come to work for us.”

Sixty from the first class of graduates at Polunsky chose to work there, while four others opted to work at the nearby Lewis Unit.

Correctional officers receiving certificates
Major Joe Smith presents a graduate with his correctional officer certificate at the conclusion of the first unit-based academy held at the Polunsky Unit earlier this year.
“If they had told me that there is a chance you won’t be working here, I wouldn’t have even have filled out the application,” Hyde said. “I think it’s a great idea to bring in local people that you normally wouldn’t get.”

“I wish this would have been my first job because I would still be here,” added Wallace, who also worked part-time as a cashier at the local Wal-Mart at the time she graduated.

Units wanting to host a special academy must be able to recruit enough people locally to make the class worthwhile. The curriculum is the same as that presented at one of the agency’s six regional academies and is taught primarily by unit staff members who must be certified to present the material.

“We will support them with specialized training, such as firearms training, defensive tactics, and the use of chemical agents if needed, but for the most part, the warden agrees to have a location for the class and have staff that are certified to be the instructors,” Upshaw said. “The wardens and their staffs take on 95 percent of what it takes to get it done.”

Upshaw said wardens who are short of staff are enthusiastic about the homegrown academies because they know that those they recruit are going to be assigned to their units upon graduation. And training them on-site aids in the orientation and bonding process, they say.

“They’re developing relationships on the unit from the start whereas if they train six weeks in Huntsville, they’re still new when they get to their unit of assignment,” Warden Dawson said. “They’re starting over. Here, we start attaching them to some of our seasoned officers from the outset, so by the time they graduate and finish their OJT (on-the-job training), they’ve already had some relationships developed. That seems to help with our retention.”

“I think it’s a lot better that the academy is here as opposed to being in Huntsville because we are going to be working around all these people that we’ve trained around,” Wallace said. “So we’ll be very familiar with each other.”

Academies ideal for outlying units

Warden Simmons said he plans to hold academies at Polunsky as long as there is a need. He said it’s not unrealistic to think that the special academies could bring the maximum-security unit up to full staffing levels.

“I think it’s very realistic,” he said. “In fact, I think this time next year we will be fully staffed. We’re doing so much to close the gap now.”

Upshaw said unit-based academies probably wouldn’t work in an area where there is a cluster of TDCJ units because each unit warden would then be recruiting from the same pool of potential employees. Such unit-based academies in those areas would also be a duplication of efforts, he said.

“It wouldn’t save anything to have a person come to an academy at the Holliday Unit in Huntsville when an academy is already in Huntsville,” he said. “You’re not going to draw any more people to it.”

While the unit-based programs will not replace the regional academies, which graduate far more officers, Upshaw said they have proven themselves useful in times of shortage.

“It’s all about us as an agency trying to get everybody that’s eligible to become a correctional officer trained as quickly as we possibly can and get them on the units so they can keep our facilities safe and secure,” he said.





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