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America's Jails Have an HR Problem

Employees are often overworked and undertrained, putting themselves and the inmates they're supposed to protect at risk.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the management of state prisons in recent years. Much of it has been aimed at corralling the growth in corrections costs, which have been consuming ever-larger portions of the total budget. But it’s equally important to look at jails. These are generally run by counties and cities, and, while populations move through jails at a more fluid pace than prisons, these facilities hold a population of about 740,000 at any one time, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. 

A look through a number of local jail audits and other independent reports reveals a management miasma that all too often is hobbling the smooth and safe functioning of jails. One of the big issues confronted by these lockups is lack of staffing. This is often the result of insufficient funding, but it can also be a product of difficulties in hiring enough personnel to fill jobs in jails. After all, it’s not exactly a kid’s dream job—the way firefighter or police officer might be. “People don’t want to work in a jail when they grow up,” says Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, adding that the ups and downs of the economy and employment rates aren’t necessarily the problem. “Meeting the staffing ratios is a challenge at all times,” he says.

Denver budgeters have also had a difficult time coming to grips with staffing shortages. According to a thorough audit, the department that runs the city and county jail has underestimated its staff budget by $8 million or more every year, which translates into roughly 100 full-time positions. The result has been high overtime rates as well as high turnover. One report found that an average jail employee worked about 24 hours of mandatory overtime every week. Denver is taking steps to rectify the situation. 

The overtime costs of understaffing are expensive, but there are other ramifications. If a parks department, for instance, is understaffed, weeds will fester and playground equipment will become wobbly. If the department of sanitation has too few workers, the streets will get dirty and garbage collection may suffer. But while well-painted jungle gyms and cleaner byways are worthy goals, jails are filled with inmates who are potentially dangerous and can’t be ignored. When that happens, both the correctional officers and the inmates in these overcrowded and understaffed jails are at risk. 

A worn-out, overworked correctional officer is less likely to be effective at dealing with inmates. “The risk of an inappropriate response to a jail incident,” says Valerie Walling, deputy auditor of Denver, “is higher when an employee is mentally or physically fatigued.” 

Even when jails are able to increase staffing, they often neglect to keep up with staff training. In Hamilton County, Ohio, for example, all corrections officers undergo initial training. But according to an audit, there is no ongoing training nor is specialized training mandated or offered to employees. Instead, corrections officers who want to obtain state certification as a law enforcement officer must do so on their own time and at their own cost. The deputies, the audit points out, are working a minimum of 80 hours per week with “diminished ability to protect themselves, other deputies, civilian employees and inmates.” The audit goes on to make a more damaging point: “This lack of training results in officers being confused, embarrassed, unable to make proper decisions” and opens the community to potential lawsuits.

Jails are often low on the list when it’s time to allocate scarce resources. But overtime, badly trained staff and safety issues are just the beginning of the litany of problems that arise when jails are underfunded. An audit in Chesapeake County, Va., for example, found that the sheriff’s office had a disproportionately high percentage of worker’s compensation claims relative to its number of full-time employees. A reason cited for the increased number of claims was that inmate populations were far above rated capacity.

Mismanagement due to underfunding often stops an enterprise from utilizing data in order to run more efficiently and save money over the long term. The Denver audit, for example, found that the county faced a number of issues with quality and consistency of data used and reported by the Denver Sheriff Department. There were numerous instances of conflicting data being reported, as well as discrepancies in collection between facilities. Furthermore, at the time of the audit, the department’s Data Analytics Division, which is charged with building and maintaining data reporting systems, did not have adequate staff to perform its duties. Staffing was not expected to be expanded. 

It’s never popular to pump money into jails. It’s money that would come out of the budget lines for such programs as education, sanitation and transportation. One solution that could make a big difference in many communities is to bolster programs and resources that go to alternatives to jail, including bail reform, better services for the mentally ill and community diversion programs. In order to save money down the line, these are, we suspect, more palatable to the public.  

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