"I was told this by a warden they've caught correctional officers making more in selling contraband cigarettes than they're making from the state." Unlike in some other states, such as California and New York, Texas jailers are not certified peace officers, which means they're not eligible for the more generous Schedule C pay scale.

"Texas correctional officers are treated no better than most security guards," Lowry said.

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Whitmire concurred, pointing out other potential troubles that stem from low income offerings.

"The low pay is a problem in terms of the increase in contraband," he said.

"I believe in most instances we put the prisons in all the wrong places," said Sen.

John Whitmire, D-Houston, chair of the Texas Senate's criminal justice committee.

In the Golden State, where prison guards are certified peace officers, vacancy rates hover around 3 percent, according to a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman.

Staffing bonuses To bolster its workforce, TDCJ has begun offering daily pre-employment tests, accelerated pay schedules for some workers, more part-time jobs and various job fairs.

"Some are located in communities that don't even have housing available for the corrections officers." County-by-county numbers show that staffing challenges can be highly localized and specific, as in the Texas Panhandle.

Hartley and Dallam counties are not in an area particularly known for oil and gas, but a cheese factory in Dalhart has typically pulled away would-be prison workers, Henson said.

They've also started offering ,000 recruitment bonuses at 25 units particularly hard-hit by staffing problems.

Among those is the Polunsky Unit, which houses death row.

One of the challenges in staffing Texas prisons is the low wages.