Short-staffed, Stanislaus County frees inmates and closes jail beds

kcarlson@modbee.comFebruary 6, 2014 

— The Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department gave early releases to scores of prisoners and is preparing to close up to 190 jail beds because of a staffing shortage.

Capt. Bill Duncan said about 60 prisoners were released in the past week as officials prepare for temporary closure of the inmate work quarters at the downtown Modesto jail. The unit housing inmates who perform janitorial work and food service is set to officially close Monday.

The county also could vacate one or two minimum-security units – totaling 128 beds – at the Public Safety Center on Hackett Road. The department notified county leaders of the “operational emergency” in a memo a week ago.

Duncan said 35 custodial deputy positions are vacant and five more deputies are expected to leave in the next several weeks. Also, 11 deputies hired within the past year are scheduled to attend mandatory academy training starting next week and won’t be available for duty until late March.

The Sheriff’s Department is reassigning personnel to cover shifts and asking that deputies assigned to court security work overtime in the jails, the memo said.

Duncan said most of the personnel “are leaving to work for other departments with better pay and benefits.” Some have accepted positions with Bay Area counties and others took jobs with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, he said.

Deputy Matt Pettus, president of the union representing the employees, agreed that compensation is the bottom line. “We only had three people retire from the division in the past year,” he said. “They need to offer a competitive compensation package, not just salary but benefits. We are lagging behind the other counties.”

Because of statewide public safety realignment, Pettus said, a large number of county jail inmates are convicted felons who previously would serve time in state prisons.

Duncan said he’s going to close one of the 64-bed units at the Public Safety Center and hope the department can manage the jail population with the remaining staff. The Sheriff’s Department budget for this year included 285 detention staff positions.

Closing the jail beds is a temporary measure until more deputies are hired to fill the vacancies, Duncan said. The department should be able to reopen the unit at the Public Safety Center after the 11 deputies complete the six-week training March 21. As additional recruits are hired, the county plans to reactivate the inmate work quarters downtown by June 30.

“It’s largely a recruitment and retention problem,” Duncan said. “All of the agencies in the state have these challenges.”

The inmates recently freed from jail were next on the list for early release. Some of the inmates housed in the downtown jail unit were moved to other cells or transferred to the Public Safety Center.

“There is a risk to the public if you have to release inmates from incarceration early,” Duncan said. “We try to identify the best of the worst – those who pose the least risk to the community.”

To speed up hiring of deputies, additional staff have been assigned to work on background checks. Each of the extensive background reviews takes about 40 hours.

Stanislaus County has continuous recruitment for custodial deputies, offering a base annual salary ranging from $45,572 to $55,411. Besides counties that pay higher wages, the state’s new state prison health care facilities near Stockton have created job opportunities for local deputies looking for greener pasture.

Despite the staffing shortage, Stanislaus County is poised to build more incareration facilities at the Hackett Road complex. The state approved an $80 million grant for a 384-bed incarceration facility, with an option for 96 more jail beds if a contractor can work them into the construction budget. The county will contribute $8.9 million in funding and also has $23 million for building support facilities for the center.

The state denied the county’s request for $40 million to build a 228-bed, program-based incareration facility for adult offenders, but the county plans to appeal the decision, said Patty Hill Thomas, an assistant executive officer for the county. That project would enable the county to nearly close the antiquated downtown jail.

Hill Thomas said the county is aware it will need an effective effort to hire and retain people as jail guards. “We are focusing a lot of time and attention on that,” she said.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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