Opinion Columns & Blogs

Hire more jail staff and bring back DOC contract

The Pierce County Corrections Guild has previously offered several suggestions to Pierce County officials about ways to eliminate budget overruns at the Pierce County Jail. These suggestions, if enacted, would enable the jail to operate within its budget and also provide enough money to pay for the training and resources we need to properly operate the facility.

A Nov. 25 News Tribune article describes a $2.5 million deficit at the jail with $1.4 million of that being overtime costs. We would suggest two simple solutions to the deficit problem.

First, hire 30 more corrections deputies and eliminate the overtime. Our guild estimates that at a 1.8 relief factor (the factor recommended by the 2014 New Jail Study), 30 new deputies would be needed to fully staff the old jail and seven units of the new jail and eliminate the overtime.

The jail currently has an average daily population of almost 1,200 inmates in 18 different units. A county of 880,000 persons, unfortunately, generates enough crime to fill the jail to this capacity. We are currently holding inmates with misdemeanors from unincorporated Pierce County. We also hold charged felons within the county as required by law.

Jail staffing studies show that 272 corrections deputies are needed to run the jail with its current population. The sheriff’s department currently has 242 corrections deputies on staff. This difference must be made up by overtime. Overtime needs at the jail require deputies to work additional shifts (sometimes involuntarily) to cover these vacancies at 1.5 times the salary of a regular employee.

Why pay current employees 1.5 times their salary at top step when you can hire new staff at entry level, train them and pay them a basic salary (a 50 percent savings)? This should not be a problem with a county willing to spend $90 million (after cost overruns) to move the county headquarters 25 blocks.

The article describes a $500,000 shortfall due to the lack of Department of Corrections (DOC) housing. Sheriff’s department Chief Brent Bomkamp is quoted as saying that there isn’t enough room at the jail to accommodate a state DOC contract.

The new jail currently has five empty units that could house 420 new inmates. In 2013, our guild membership suggested to county officials that they open up DOC housing at the jail. The jail could have housed an additional 84 state inmates (one unit’s worth) at the current daily rate of $84 per inmate and made Pierce County $2,575,440 per year.

This figure would more than cover the $2.4 million deficit we are facing. At that time, several officials voiced Not In My Back Yard concerns about housing felons from other counties here. These concerns can be eliminated by requiring the DOC to transport its inmates back to where they came from when their sentences are complete.

The DOC would jump at the chance to house state inmates here due to Pierce County’s location between Olympia and Seattle. In 2013, unfortunately, the previous undersheriff would not commit to housing state inmates on a consistent basis. The DOC went elsewhere with its inmates. This could be fixed by offering the department a permanent contract with up to 84 inmates per day being housed at the jail.

Bringing the Department of Corrections back would bring in needed income to the jail that should be used to hire and train new corrections deputies and renovate and repair an aging facility. A DOC contract would enable Pierce County to run a safe and constitutional jail that would best serve the public interest.

Kent Wales is the dayshift representative of the Pierce County Corrections Guild.