By Michael Heins
Hill County Justice Center employees raised fears that a staff shortage is a potential safety risk at a meeting Thursday.
Employees of the center met with Hill County commissioners and Justice Court Judge Carol Chagnon to discuss the issue of inadequate staffing at the detention center.
The dispatch, deputies and detention officers said that the facility is understaffed and they are overloaded with duties. They said they feel the under staffing is a safety issue and they fear for not only the safety of the detention staff but inmates as well.
"We feel that there is a safety concern because of the under staffing," said Dick Letang, a union representative for the employees. "The purpose of detention is the care and custody of prisoners. We need to provide a safe environment for the prisoners."
Deputy Sheriff Rick Munfrada said the deputies also have safety concerns.
"The concerns the deputies are having is we spend a lot of time transporting prisoners to and from district court and to the hospital and back," he said. "This is something the deputies did not do a whole lot before, but we are doing a lot of now."
The dispatchers said they are overloaded and stressed because of the under staffing.
"In September, it was not as bad as it is now, trying to do 911 calls and other duties," Dispatcher Sandy Sargent said. "All it takes is one 911 call and the dispatch personnel has to focus on call and is unable to do these extra duties.
"We are in there by ourselves and we are doing all this unnecessary work. I feel that we are not giving 100 percent to dispatch anymore."
The employees said they could use a full-time controller.
The controller pushes buttons that control the flow of people in and out of the facility.
In a noon shift, the dispatcher has to hit the button 250 to 500 times, while having to handle the radio and telephone at the same time, Letang said.
"It is difficult for the dispatcher to double as a controller and open the door constantly that allows the flow of traffic in and out of the detention center," Sargent said. "It's imperative that we have another controller or dispatcher, especially in the morning or afternoon shift."
In January of 1998 the average population at the detention center was 17.3 inmates and in December of that year it was 19.7, but by the following December of 1999 it was 31.1.
"The amount of inmates has been very much uphill," Detention Officer Paul Nugent said. "My assumption is that now that we have a bigger facility the inmate population could go up considerably."
The current inmate population has not gone up as a whole from the old facility, but the detention staff has three times the area to cover. Instead of having just one place to go and check on prisoners, they have three areas to check on.
"It is not a safe situation when you are dealing with three drunks by yourself; an extra person would help," Nugent said. "I feel I take pride in my work and when I am not doing the job justice, it frustrates me.
"We have so much peripheral stuff to do. In one situation, I was assaulted and the dispatcher had no idea what was going on. There were two of us in the jail pod at the time. The dispatcher had no idea that this was going on until we walked out with the prisoner in handcuffs."
The cost for additional staff for 5.56 new employees would add up to $127,482.75, Letang said
"We are not asking for the $127,000 today," Letang said. "We are two-thirds of the way through the fiscal year. If you could hire five additional people today, that would be one-third of that total."
The county commissioners said they were sympathetic but budget constraints makes it very difficult for them.
"Another $100,000 into the budget is not there," Commissioner Pat Conway said.
The commissioners had hoped that the new detention center would have paying customers, with the Department of Correction crying out for more beds, Conway said.
"When we sold the bonds to the public, this was one of the key points," he said. "I don't think that there is any doubt that we are not aware of the problem. We did advertise for a full-time position."
The county seems to have more promising candidates with the full-time position, Conway said.
Sheriff Tim Solomon said he agrees with the detention staff and sympathizes with their situation.
"I agree with their frustration," Solomon said.