Staffing level at jail raises concerns

ESCANABA – Understaffing of corrections officers in the Delta County Jail was the main item of concern discussed Thursday morning during a special meeting of the Delta County Board of Commissioners.

This spring, an inspector from the Michigan Department of Corrections toured the county jail facility, noting the existing staffing level in the jail of 13 full-time equivalents (FTEs) is not consistent with the intent of an administrative rule requirement set forth in the Michigan Department of Corrections Administrative Rules for Jails and Lockups.

Though not a law, the rule states the requirement of 20 FTEs to properly and safely staff the facility, according to Delta County Sheriff Gary Ballweg.

The DOC has recommended creating two positions that would need to be staffed 24/7, or in one case, for 18 hours a day, seven days a week, he said.

“In practice, what we have been doing in the past couple of years is filling additional positions in the jail on day shift, Monday through Friday, maybe for purposes of running inmates to court, being in court with inmates …. and, of course, running inmates to various medical appointments that they have to have outside the facility, running inmates back and forth to other county jails and state prisons and so forth,” he said. “So we have been filling some of the recommended positions of this chart (provided by the DOC) by using part-timers and overtime during the last several years.”

Ballweg noted over the past few years the jail had been running three officers per shift to work in the facility, but noted sometimes an officer may need to leave to transport an inmate, leaving only two officers at the jail.

“We’ve been leaving the facility dangerously understaffed when we take an officer out of there and leave only two,” he said, noting if a fight or another disturbance breaks out in the jail, two officers is not enough to handle the problem. Even if all three officers responded to a disturbance, there would be no one left to watch over the rest of the facility and monitor the other inmates.

“That gives them the perfect opportunity to create their own mischief when nobody’s monitoring them,” he said.

And though the jail uses multiple cameras, Ballweg said there is still no one there to constantly monitor them.

The ideal situation, he said, is for someone to be inside the control room around the clock, so if something bad happens inside the jail, that officer would be able to call for additional help.

Another main reason for the greater staffing need is the increase of inmates.

When the current jail facility was occupied in 1965, the typical number of inmates ranged between six and 20, who behaved in a different manner than those jailed today. The current average number of inmates is approximately 90 per day.

“Inmates back then, for the most part, were civil, they respected authority once they were arrested,” said Ballweg. “If someone committed a felony they were only here for six to 10 weeks at the maximum. If you committed a felony, you went to prison.”

Now the roles of jail facilities have changed from a county jail system focus to a state prison and mental health system focus, due to the types of inmates who now occupy county jails.

“We are the mental health facility and we are the state prison system in our location,” he said.

According to Ballweg, current inmates have various mental illnesses or disorders; he estimates 50 to 70 percent of them require some type of medication, which when dispersed, can take up to two hours of an officer’s time each day.

“Ninety percent of the inmates in our facility today – and it’s not just our facility, it’s all kind of jails – need some sort of mental health or drug and alcohol addiction treatment of some sort,” he said.

Additionally, those who know they are coming to jail try to smuggle drugs into the facility.

“The drug situation has become so rampant over there over the last several years, we’ve had to continue to reduce the amount of items that can come into the jail,” he added, noting simple items like a paperback book or underwear are not allowed, unless the item comes through a commercial entity.

Other potential problems include bullying of inmates, possible sexual assaults, and those inmates that require near 24/7 supervision by an officer and medical staff.

Ballweg said he knows the board cannot fill all of the recommended additional seven positions, but believes they need to start somewhere to address the issue and hopes they will talk about it during the budget process.

“I think as a county, we can’t look at going back to what a jail facility once was,” said Commissioner Ann Jousma Miller, upon hearing just how much the jail has changed over the years. “If we’re going to look forward…how do we prepare for the future? Going back isn’t an option.”

Ballweg said he plans to have a meeting with all jail stake-holders after Jan. 1 to discuss jail concerns as well as the potential for a new jail facility in the future. He urged the commissioners to visit the jail so they can see firsthand the need for additional staff.

In other business, the board approved a wage and benefit package for Phil Griebel, who will become the Delta County undersheriff following the retirement of current Undersheriff Ed Oswald. Griebel officially begins in his new position next week.

Griebel has a total of 19 years working in the Delta County Sheriff’s Department, with additional correctional facility experience prior to his work at the county, noted Ballweg, adding Griebel has a lot of support from the department.

The board set Griebel’s starting salary at $68,000 given his years of experience with the county. According to Delta County Administrator Nora Viau, Griebel’s benefit packages includes a $575 payment in-lieu of health insurance and his remaining benefits are part of a non-bargaining package. Griebel’s retirement plan will also move from defined benefit to defined contribution.