By Nicole Minier
COLUMBIA CITY — Whitley County took a step toward staffing the county jail, but, as councilman Bill Overdeer said, “We’re between a rock and a hard place.”
With an already tight general fund, the council and other elected officials will face difficult decisions this year after the state deemed the jail “non-compliant.”
If the county does not take steps toward becoming compliant, the jail could be shut down and inmates sent to other facilities.
The jail currently has 18 confinement officers who work “on the floor” and one jail commander who has supervisory duties. The state says the jail needs an additional 12 officers to be compliant — that’s with the inmate population being reduced by 20 percent. The jail consistently has been near-capacity.
“Our jail is headed toward a critical state,” said Sheriff Marc Gatton.
At times, the inmate to jailer ratio is 60 to one, putting officers in a dangerous position with difficult inmates.
“The jail is changing,” Gatton said. “We’re having more substance abuse issues and mental health problems. A lot of them don’t respect or care for us no matter what we do.”
Although the county has a community corrections program available to some inmates, Gatton said many do not qualify due to the nature of their crimes or behavior while incarcerated. On an average day, the jail has two to three incidents with inmates.
Since September, three officers have been injured in altercations with inmates. All three were seen at the emergency room and either had lost time at work or were put on light duty. One injury required two surgeries for the employee. The most recent incident between an inmate and jailer was on New Year’s Eve.
“We have to call in guys off the road or ask for a city unit to help us,” Gatton said.
Confinement officers have tasers and pepper spray for their usage; however, there is a protocol on how soon an officer can use such levels of force.
The jail also has a restraint chair, but state law requires that three officers be present when those chairs are in use. Because of the low staffing levels at the jail, restraint chairs often can’t be used.
Along with incidents between jailers and inmates, an increasing number inmates have been on medical or suicide watch, requiring them to be checked on every 15 minutes by an officer who also has to answer phones, monitor surveillance cameras and open locked doors.
Both the commissioners and councilmen were in agreement that changes need to be made, however, the county has minimal funds to make the drastic changes that are needed.
The total cost of a confinement officer is about $$57,000, including benefits. Twelve jailers at $57,000 is a total of $684,000 per year.
Another option is to send inmates to other jails, paying them to house Whitley County’s inmates. The cost of that is about $50-60 per day, per inmate. Gatton estimates about 50 inmates would need to be sent to other jails to bring the inmate population to 80 percent, which is what is recommended. In total, that option would cost between $500,000 and $700,000 per year.
Offering overtime to current employees could be an option, but Gatton said the jail staff is getting “burnt out,” and likely wouldn’t be interested in working overtime.
“They look forward to their days off,” Gatton said.
The department has had several employees come and go in recent years, and Gatton says Whitley County is not the exception, many other counties have similar issues with finding staff.
Some use confinement officer positions as a stair-step into other careers, such as law enforcement.
“Others find out the jail environment is not for them,” Gatton said. “Some come for a short time until they’re burnt out and move on.”
Gatton requested three new confinement officer positions to make a good-faith effort toward the state’s requirements; however, the county only had enough money in its public safety LOIT fund to fund two officers. The two new officers would be put on first and second shifts to assist with the influx of responsibilities on those shifts.
Officers during daytime hours assist with transporting inmates to and from the courthouse and need to be present when inmates interact with the nurse. The two new officers won’t be of much help with the shortage of supervision in satellite areas of the jail. In order to be up to the state’s requirements, the jail would need five jailers working per shift. Currently, there is always at least three confinement officers working at at time, and occasionally four on first and second shifts.
“We have moved forward, but we’re not moving fast enough for the state,” Gatton said. “They could put an injunction on us and make us empty the jail.”
The sheriff’s department must have a plan together by Jan. 23, when the state will check on its progress. Commissioner George Schrumpf said the county will likely ask for an extension while a committee works to make a plan for the future of the jail.