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High pressure, low pay: Detention officers pay price for crowded jails

Detention Officer Ledford shows how automated technology helps ensure staff is adhering to protocol that requires them to check on inmates twice an hour. Jessi Stone photo Detention Officer Ledford shows how automated technology helps ensure staff is adhering to protocol that requires them to check on inmates twice an hour. Jessi Stone photo

Taxpayers aren’t the only ones paying the price for the growing number of incarcerations and overcrowded jails. 

The 730,000 people being kept in nearly 3,000 jails across the country will only be well cared for if the estimated 430,000 correctional officers tasked with supervising them are paid and trained well. 

However, detention officers work long shifts, are typically paid less than any other law enforcement position and work under some of the most stressful conditions imaginable. 

The incarceration rates continue to grow at a rapid rate in rural counties throughout the nation. Based on studies by Vera Institute of Justice, rural jail incarceration rates are surpassing the rates in urban and mid-size cities for the first time in history. The number of people being held in jails pretrial has quadrupled since the 1970s and the cost of jails nationwide has grown four-fold between 1983 and 2011 from $5.7 billion to $22.2 billion.

Personnel costs can eat up a majority of a jail’s budget, which is why the number of officers on duty has not kept pace with the number of inmates those officers have to supervise. 

Overworked and underpaid employees can lead to high turnover and low morale because of the tremendous amount of pressure placed on staff. WNC jails are no exception. 

Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said turnover was his biggest challenge in managing the jail. Swain County pays on the lower end of the scale when it comes to its detention officers — the starting salary is $25,600 a year.

“Our biggest challenge is trying to keep people in the jail simply because of the pay,” he said. “We train them and then they leave for a better paying job and I can’t blame them. We’re just a training facility is all we are.”

The county has increased the pay some over the last couple of years, but Cochran said he has another proposal in to the commissioners for another increase for detention officers to get them more in line with pay for patrol deputies. 

“They have a harder job than anyone in law enforcement. On patrol you might deal with one or a few people at a time, but in here they deal with 75 inmates with three officers on a shift — that’s a 25 to 1 ratio,” Cochran added. 

Capt. John Buchanan said the Jackson County Detention Center also deals with understaffing issues. While the jail’s average daily population continues to grow, the jail is still operating with 20 detention officers — the same number of officers it had when the jail opened in 2003. 

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“We maintain about 65 inmates and we hold an average of five detention officers per shift — that’s not a good ratio,” he said. 

Buchanan said the jail hasn’t experienced a lot of turnover since he took over as jail administrator in 2015, though some officers do leave for higher paying jobs or to advance their careers. The starting pay for a detention officer in Jackson County is about $29,000. 

Haywood County Detention officers start out at $13.79 an hour — which is less than $27,000 a year before taxes. Haywood’s jail has 148 beds and 42 employees. Any given shift has six officers on duty.   

Macon County Detention Center, a 75-bed facility, has a total of 18 detention officers on staff and three per shift with an average daily inmate population of 98. They also start detention officers out at about $29,000 a year plus benefits. 

Sheriff Robert Holland said it’s not a lot of money considering the amount of responsibility these officers have in dealing with the multitude of inmate issues. 

“With opioid addiction and the lack of services and the bad choices by individuals — it causes problems with the amount of people (in jail) and staffing,” he said. “It’s hard on morale. I’ve got officers working night and day and officers not making a lot of money.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, the national average salary for a detention officer in 2011 was $43,550. Officers in the lowest 10 percent of the profession earn up to $27,000 while those in the top 10 make about $69,000 a year. Unfortunately, the average annual wage for officers in North Carolina is $29,680.

Larry Amerson, retired sheriff of Calhoun County, Alabama, recently spoke about the challenges detention officers face at the Rural Jail Crisis Conference at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. While officers have always been tasked with enforcing the laws, Amerson said officers now have an expanded job scope that includes being able to recognize the signs of addiction and mental illness. 

They have to be able to recognize certain red flags within the inmate population and follow strict protocols to ensure inmate and officer safety. A limited number of officers and an overcrowded jail can be a deadly combination. Calhoun County Jail, which reached an all-time high of 643 inmates this year, has dealt with a number of inmate assaults, deaths and attempted escapes in recent years due to overcrowding and high turnover. Whether it’s inside the jail or out on patrol, Amerson said his deputies didn’t take these tragedies lightly. 

“We’ve lost multiple deputies involved in these incidents — they carry a lot of pain the rests of their lives,” he said. 

Amerson also said law enforcement officers often need the most help but are the least likely to speak up and ask for it. A 2011 survey conducted by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach found that 14 percent of military veterans reported symptoms of PTSD while 34 percent of correctional officers said they experienced symptoms. These symptoms often go undiagnosed because officers consider it a sign of weakness, which can lead to officers self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. 

“I’ve had deputies commit suicide and I missed the signs. I have to live with that. I think we have to change the laws to change how we do business,” Amerson said. 

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