published Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

Hamilton County Jail logs 20,000 hours of OT

The Hamilton County Jail
The Hamilton County Jail
Photo by WRCB-TV Channel 3 /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

CUTTING IT CLOSE

Five months into the 2013 fiscal year the sheriff's department is running about even or slightly over budget in two major spending areas, but well over in a third.

• Fuel for patrol cars: As of Nov. 30, $263,008, or about 43 percent, had been spent as of Nov. 30 on fuel for patrol cars out of a $615,000 budget.

• Food for inmates: Also as of Nov. 30, $301,939 had been spent on food for inmates out of a $670,000 budget.

• Jail overtime: $478,000 budgeted to pay jailer overtime for the fiscal year, which runs through June 30, will be spent by the end of the month.

Source: Sheriff's office

With less than half the fiscal year over, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office is expected to expend its entire overtime budget for jailers before the end of the month because of a shortage of corrections officers.

From July 1 to Dec. 12, corrections officers logged 20,089 overtime hours at the six-story downtown jail. The department has spent $438,202 for overtime, leaving just $40,148 to last until June 30.

Of 139 budgeted corrections officer positions, just 129 are filled. Some of those are administrators, and other employees listed as corrections officers don't actually work in the jail, sheriff's office records show.

The jailers who are left are working back-to-back, 16-hour shifts and going weeks without a day off. Exhausted corrections officers are making mistakes -- including accidentally releasing an inmate, according to internal affairs files. Sometimes only two officers are at work in the booking area, when department policy calls for at least six and preferably eight.

The Hamilton County grand jury issued a critical report on jail staffing this month.

"At the time of our tour, [Oct. 23] they were running 150 inmates to 1 corrections officer. This is unacceptable given all the tasks that these officers have put before them to run the jail safely and efficiently," the report states.

Sheriff Jim Hammond says corrections is the most volatile area of his budget because of high turnover.

"The jail is always the place where you have the most ebb and flow of employees," he said. "They either get a better job and get employed. They go to the [patrol] academy and get promoted. Or they get disciplined, terminated or they are off on leave."

He conceded that he's concerned about officer safety because of the short staffing.

"We've come close to the edge, there's no doubt about it," he said, adding that he's taking steps to boost the numbers.

Shortage documented

The staffing shortages have been documented for more than a year.

Last year, Hamilton County Magistrate Larry Ables wrote a letter to Hammond expressing concerns about staffing levels at the jail.

"I see corrections officers who work two shifts in a row and then come back the next day to do the same thing all over again. These officers are also working six days a week," Ables wrote. "I'm sure that a little extra money every once in awhile is nice but this type of scheduling has cost. Without time to unwind, these officers are at risk of harming themselves or others."

In March, corrections Officers David Donahue and Eric Qualls were suspended for three days when a high-profile inmate, Jumoke Johnson Jr., accidentally was released. Qualls was doing the job of two officers as the time, according to internal affairs reports.

"Officer Qualls in fact processed over 20 new arrests during his work day; it should also be noted that Officer Qualls was on his 20th day straight without an off day due to extreme personnel shortages," Corrections Lt. Byron Knight wrote in an internal affairs report.

In this case another supervisor observed, "Officers are working six sometimes seven days a week and these hours are not the desire of the officer but due to the extreme needs of the department to fill mandatory post on a daily basis. ...

"Many of them would prefer not to work these excessive hours," Corrections Sgt. Carla Ford wrote in a report. "However, with the excessive work load that we often experience we will continue to have breakdowns in communication and random errors."

Fluctuating numbers

Annual state inspection reports show jail staffing fluctuated from 152 in 2011 to just 105 earlier this year.

A new class of 11 corrections officers graduated from the academy a few weeks ago, easing the need for some mandatory overtime shifts. However, some jailers are still working overtime just to keep the jail staffed, according to sources.

As of last week, the jail staff was down again by nearly 10 officers. Staff numbers change daily, according to administrators.

At least three corrections officers are awaiting trial on criminal charges and two more are suspended pending the outcome of internal investigations.

As many as four employees listed as corrections officers do not work at the jail, according to the sheriff's office budget. Two work in information technology, one works in the sex offender registry office and one is working out of the sheriff's annex on Dayton Boulevard on national accreditation for the sheriff's office through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

Hammond said classifying those employees as corrections officers is proper.

"A lot of what they work on also affects the jail," he said.

Hiring more officers takes time, Hammond said.

Don Gorman, the department's director of administration, said out of 60 recent applicants, only 19 met physical standards, which includes 32 pushups in a minute, 34 sit-ups in a minute and running one mile under 10 minutes.

Those who qualify then must complete the corrections academy, which takes six weeks.

Hammond said the next academy is scheduled to begin in February.

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