Meadville Tribune

Opinion

April 12, 2013

County officials should appoint a committee to consider jail changes

Staffing and training are the most challenging and important deficiencies noted in the recent independent review of the Crawford County jail.

As the report documents, the jail’s complement of full-time correctional officers is not adequate to cover sick days, vacations and other time away from work. As a result, the jail leans heavily on “per diem” correctional officers — employees who are called in on an as-needed basis and paid by the hour. They are typically informed two or three days in advance of the day and shift they are needed. In addition, the report claims that a number of them report being called in to work when they have already declared themselves unavailable. They are also required to find a replacement if they cannot work the hours they’ve been assigned, the report points out.

Although these workers are expected to handle nearly all the tasks of a full-time correctional officer, they are paid $8.50 an hour to start and receive no benefits and much less training than full-time officers. The facility uses these low-paid, minimally trained workers extensively. The report documents that “working 40-hour work weeks including overtime is a common occurrence” for per diem officers.

There is, among both full-time and per diem officers, a widespread impression that the per diem officers are “taken advantage of,” according to the report.

While full-time officers do receive some training, the report is critical of the amount and of its administration. There apparently is no single repository of training documentation showing who completed what and when. There are also apparently some training sessions that are completely undocumented. No one officer is responsible for coordinating training sessions when, as the report points out, “many facilities of this size have designated training coordinators.” Attendance at training sessions is typically low, and it appears this is because officers must attend these sessions on their own time and are not paid when they attend.

In addition, the jail’s current $7,500 a year training budget is also highlighted as insufficient to provide training for the current staff.

The report points out more full-time workers and more training shouldn’t be considered frills, even in an era of tight county finances.

The report states: “If the per diem staff are performing the same primary job duties as the full-time staff, they are also exposed to the same types of liability that encourages departments to provide appropriate and thorough training for their full-time staff. For the county’s protection, all line staff should have the same training.” And this: “While we understand the financial issues related to maintaining a pool of full-time employees, it is important for the county to recognize that there can be liability consequences related to cutting corners in staffing and training.”

In short, in saving money now by depending on per diem officers and providing minimal training, the jail risks paying out much more later by creating an environment in which incidents are more likely to happen and are more likely to not receive an adequate response. The money spent to address an incident won’t come from some big pot in the sky. It will come out of the pockets of every taxpayer in the county.

As a result, as the report suggests, it is prudent to review and recommend changes in the number of full-time officers, the administration and the amount of training and the use of per diem officers. We suggest that the Crawford County Prison Board appoint a committee of board members, jail employees and members of the public to study changes, develop recommendations and attach pricetags to each recommendation. Their work should be made public and submitted to the county commissioners for discussion and debate, and the changes agreed upon through that process should be implemented as soon as possible.

Coming Saturday: Independent review of jail also highlights significant positives.

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