Monday 31 January 2011

Prison system to add random drug tests for guards, officers

In a push to bolster security and curb contraband in Texas' massive prison system, officials for the first time plan to order random drug tests for a majority of the state's 41,000 corrections employees including all guards and parole officers.
Bryan Collier, deputy director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said Thursday that the policy to be unveiled next week is designed to raise staffing standards inside Texas' 112 state prisons.
Like other state prison systems, Texas' state-run lockups have had chronic problems with contraband — highlighted two years ago when a death-row convict used a smuggled cell phone to call a key state senator.
A zero-tolerance policy since then has resulted in the seizure of thousands of weapons, drugs, phones and other illicit materials. But a smuggled gun used in an escape and other incidents have made prison contraband a continuing public safety issue. Several guards have been fired or forced to retire for involvement in contraband smuggling and related infractions.
The drug testing "will cover a majority of the agency's employees," Collier said. "Any of us who are in this business, if people are doing drugs, we don't want them working in the institutions. It's not safe."
The agency has more than 41,300 employees, including more than 29,200 correctional officers and supervisors and nearly 1,300 parole officers.
Collier and other officials said the testing program will take effect later this summer, with employees selected by a computer-generated list. Employees who are asked to take a drug test will go to a private lab chosen by the state and provide a specimen.
Additional details are expected to be made public next week during a meeting of the prison system's nine-member governing board.
Prison officials said the cost of random testing is still being calculated. Union officials suggested the program could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
"At a time when they're not filling positions, and a lot of people expect there could be layoffs, is this the best time to do this?" asked Brian Olsen, executive director of a correctional employees' union that represents more than 6,000 prison workers. "We have a lot of questions about how this will be done."
Convicts and parolees have been subject to random drug testing for years, but the new policy marks the first time that employees — from rookie guards to Executive Director Brad Livingston — will face the same mandate. The agency has for some time required pre-employment drug tests, and it has tested some workers for cause — if there was suspicion that they might be using drugs.
Initial response from prison employees has been mixed, although Collier and other officials said they are confident most workers will embrace the policy once the details are announced.
House Corrections Committee Chairman Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, said he has been told the random testing will begin on or before Aug. 31. He said he pushed for the policy after quizzing a warden last spring about what he needed to stop the flow of contraband into his prison.
"He said: 'Random drug tests,' " McReynolds said. "This is a no-brainer. It should have been done a long time ago. ... My son is with the Lufkin Fire Department. They do random testing. Other state agencies do random testing of employees. It makes sense we should be doing this in our prison system."
McReynolds and Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, said they think the random tests will help curb contraband.
"If the leadership believes that this will deter contraband and create a safer working environment for correctional officers, who could oppose it?" Whitmire asked.
McReynolds said "we may have an exodus of (correctional officers), but I don't think we care about that."
"Anyone who would object to this testing at the largest agency in the state probably shouldn't be working there."
As word about the change trickled out, some correctional officers questioned whether their rights will be adequately preserved. Will they be allowed to take a second test at a lab of their own choice if the first one registers positive for drugs? How will the same testing standards be maintained statewide if as many as 100 labs are involved? Will employees be allowed to use their own labs instead of a state-designated lab?
"Most states do some form of testing, and that's not the issue," Olsen said. "We want to make sure the standards and procedures are fair and that they're fairly administered."

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