By Alan Sorensen
Sheriff Tim Solomon is offering no apologies for accusations by a union newspaper that the new Hill County Justice Center is dangerously understaffed.
An article in the January 2000 issue of Montana Public Employee magazine claimed that under staffing at the detention center was particularly dangerous for employees. Four department employees, including a detention officer, two dispatchers and a deputy, were quoted in the article.
The only part of the article that Solomon adamantly disputes is the anonymous writer's assertion that the average daily jail population is double what it was at the old jail. Solomon said that the average of about 20 to 25 inmates at the time the article came out was almost identical to what it had been in the 80-year-old jail at the Hill County Courthouse recently.
Solomon did acknowledge that the gist of the article, that the "Hill County Prison" is "in desperate need of additional manpower," was in most respects correct and was due to under funding. He did say, however, that any hint that employees were in greater danger than they were at the old facility was false.
One incident recounted in the article hinted that a woman employee was in danger when an inmate accused of murder went berserk in the library area. The inmate reportedly caused a lot of damage while the lone dispatcher on duty was busy with a 911 call.
"There's no one been hurt," Solomon said in defense of the new facility. "There was an incident when some property was damaged by a prisoner, but it was controlled and no one was hurt and the person's been controlled since."
Solomon and Undersheriff Don Brostrom said that damaging property is the kind of criminal activity that inmates do and that often lands them in jail in the first place.
"We had things damaged down there," Brostrom said in reference to the old jail.
"And we had people hurt," Solomon added.
Another isolated incident recounted in the article said that a deputy was moving an inmate from the detention center to a hospital appointment when a stabbing call came in. The deputy said he was providing "day care" for the prisoner because the detention officers were needed on site. That extra responsibility, he said, keeps deputies from performing their law enforcement duties and completing their office chores.
Solomon said that situation is about the same as it was at the old jail.
"It was to show they were busy," Solomon said about the deputy's story. "He could have been busy on anything another call or whatever. It just happened that time that he was on a prisoner transport."
In that particular instance, the deputy continued his transport and an off-duty deputy was called in for backup to the knifing call.
"It's not that unusual to call out someone for backup; we're short," Solomon said. "We'd love to have more people."
Solomon said that detention and dispatch employees experienced radical shifts in duties and responsibilities when moving into the new facility in October. Solomon and Brostrom think those shifts contributed to some of the concerns the employees voiced in the union publication.
"For the story, I think, it was coming out of the frustration of the move," Solomon said.
Solomon and Brostrom think some of the frustration comes from employees having to learn new jobs and giving up old ones.
"Change is causing some of it," Solomon said.
Brostrom said that, upon their move to the new facility in September, the dispatchers lost most of the routine office chores they'd held at the sheriff's office such as record keeping, reports and filing. In exchange for those jobs, they began spending much more time with control-room duties checking TV monitors and buzzing detention officers and arresting officers through the numerous secure doors in the new detention area.
"Then, the first of January, we went on this new computer system," Solomon said. "It's been a lot for them. We made it through it and hope that things will get better."
Solomon said one dispatcher quit and another retired since the move. That, along with the flu season, he said, made the situation even worse. "I think it's largely things beyond people's control."
"We have moved part-time (employees) up to full time," Solomon said, "and we're advertising for a part-time already to get up to what we'd planned with the new facility."
Detention officers were frustrated, too, Brostrom said, because in the old jail the only buzzer they had to wait for was the outside door. Within the jail, they were the ones who manually unlocked and locked all the doors and cells.
"It's frustrating, when they are used to going where they want and now have to wait to be buzzed through doors," Brostrom said. "A minute can seem like forever.
"But it's been frustrating for us, too," Brostrom added. "We as administrators have put in a lot of extra hours trying to work through it and we're starting to get our feet on the ground."
Solomon said the county's budget for the county-wide dispatch center has been short for the past three years because the county's contract with the city expired and was never renewed.
"We haven't had any money from the city for about three years and we're trying to get it reinstated because about 80 percent of the calls that come in here are city calls," Solomon said.
Solomon did not dispute the union magazine's article regarding the under staffing in the dispatch and control center due to limited funding.
"I agree that at peak times we need a second person in there, three on a good day," Solomon said. "I'd like to see more support in that control center. They're doing the job, but I think they'd be more efficient with more help in there. I applied for the money and now we're advertising to hire someone to have a second person in there."
Also contributing to the tightened budget were some unforeseen expenses incurred during the move to the new facility.
"Just moving and getting people used to it, we used a lot of extra people," Brostrom said. "A lot of the budget went into it training and computers, etc."
The department also is having problems with its telephone system. Calls to the county facility ring for a long time before being connected to an answering tree. The recording is slow in letting callers know how to direct their calls and has a tendency to go into a second cycle sometimes. Brostrom said the department's telephone server is responsible for getting the problems fixed.
"We hope the public hangs in there, because it can be frustrating for them waiting to get through with that ringing and ringing and ringing," Solomon said.
In the meantime, Solomon and the county commission are continuing their negotiations with the city for dispatch funds and other efforts to acquire funding to bring the facility up to full staff.