The Sampson County Detention Center is understaffed, causing stressed-out and stretched-thin employees, and Sheriff’s officials are encouraging capable and upstanding citizens seeking a job to consider employment in a “special” field.
It would be ideal to have a full staff of 49 officers within the Detention Center and currently the department is well from that mark, with eight slots standing vacant, sheriff’s officials said. While the current staffing still meets minimum state standards, there are on average 10 employees for each of four rotating Detention Center shifts.
“When you’re eight short, that’s two employees per shift that are missing,” said Lt. Marcus Smith, who noted that the facility has been as many as 10 short of that optimum staffing level about a year ago. Many who apply do so because of “word of mouth,” but Smith said the majority of the public simply don’t know about the pressing issue.
“People don’t know about it,” he said, “or they don’t know how to apply.”
Sheriff Jimmy Thornton cited a “revolving-door situation” his department has been dealing with for at least four or five years, which has adversely affected the Detention Center.
“It’s recurring continuously,” the sheriff said. “We’ve not missed a beat as far as the (Detention Center revenues) coming in, but it creates that strain on those who are here, certified and working.”
That certification is key. When a new officer comes on board, within the first year, they must go through Detention Officer Certification Course, which is separate from Basic Law Enforcement Training.
“They have to be certified in Detention,” the sheriff noted.
The course is five weeks long, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. If relegated to taking a night course, that period extends to eight weeks. Sometimes, that also requires travel out of the county, because Sampson Community College no longer offers the course. Even if the Sheriff’s Office was considering eight applicants and was able to get them in, it would still take that time to get them certified and in the door.
“They’ve got to go to that class,” said Thornton, who pointed out the mounting stress on existing Detention staff. “It’s a constant strain back there.”
There are 252 beds, averaging 100 out-of-county prisoners among them. The jail stays full, but even if it does not, the staff has to be there.
“If we have 10 inmates in a 38-inmate cell pod,” the sheriff pointed out, “we still have to have the number (of officers) it would take to man it if it was full.”
And, these days, that staff has to be skilled to do numerous tasks, everything from escorts, transfers, searches and intake to medical calls, kitchen monitoring, roaming and central control.
“It’s not just one task,” said Thornton. “They have to multi-task. It’s constant.”
“Essentially what we’re having to do is pull people who would normally do one assignment and have them do three or four assignments,” Smith added. “They’ll be doing intake, booking and checking mail to make sure contraband is coming in and out, watching the kitchen or do medical. This one person is having to do all these jobs.”
“That’s what creates the problem,” Thornton interjected. “It’s so stressful and so demanding.”
Some of those demands can be eased with proper staffing levels, Smith said.
“It is a great job, and really not as stressful, when we’re staffed,” he remarked. “That’s what we’re trying to address. We want to bring those staffing levels up to par.”
Compounding the problem are employment requirements, aside from the training once hired, that applicants must meet.
Thornton said, like any other business, sheriff’s officials are not going to take someone off the street, hand them a uniform and make them a Detention Center employee.
State minimum requirements include being a U.S. citizen, who is at least 21 years old and has a high school graduate or equivalent (GED). Among additional requirements, the applicant must: have had a medical examination by a licensed physician; produce a negative result on a drug screen; make full disclosure of criminal charges; be of good moral character; have a thorough background investigation and personal interview; and not have a prohibitive criminal history record.
That, Smith noted, includes any felonies or a “combination of misdemeanors,” again a state standard.
Capt. Eric Pope said that a thorough background investigation and the county’s personal history statement is often what disqualifies candidates. It doesn’t entail just criminal checks, but social media is also utilized as a tool in gauging potential employees.
“We need to make sure they are above reproach,” said Pope, who also touted the need to be capable of making a solid evaluation of an inmate. “They are a cross between a caregiver and a guard. Anyone we bring into that jail, they need to evaluate that person not only medically but mentally. We’ve got to have people who are competent, capable and who can use their abilities to evaluate. They are basically assuming the liability for the county. That’s why there are such stringent screening requirements involved in this process.”
High capability and high integrity is what is being sought for those positions.
The sheriff knows well that the average taxpayer likely does not think about those Detention Center demands or, for that matter, care about whether the inmates are “catered to,” but the county is required by state law to ensure they are cared for to avoid liability issues.
“This is serious business,” Thornton noted of the hiring process. “It takes a lot of time just checking these individuals out.”
And it takes a special person to work at the jail, they said.
“Everyone’s ambition is not to carry a gun, drive a car and deal with the public,” Smith stated. “It takes special people who have that talent to be able to work with inmates.”
If an individual successfully makes it through the application process, the board — that includes the sheriff and chief deputy — weighs the pros and cons of each individual and, based on that, a conditional offer of employment is made. Even after that, further spot visits are made and a physical examination must be passed, before that person is then eligible to be appointed. Boards are held sporadically, when there are enough applications to justify it.
“We take applications all year, but whenever we run a board there are about 12-14 applications pending,” Smith said. “I’d say about 75 percent of them don’t even make it to the board.”
Those interested can come to the Sheriff’s Office and ask for an application, fill it out and return it. Sheriff’s officials hope capable and qualified citizens will want to serve the county.
“It has been an issue,” Thornton said, “and in all likelihood, it’s going to continue to be one. It’s not a glamorous job, and there is certainly risk associated with it.”
“But it’s probably the most important job we have,” Smith attested.
The sheriff expressed gratitude to the current Detention Center staff, some of whom are tenured employees with many years of experience. He wants to see more like them.
“Those who have been here and stayed here certainly deserve a lot of gratitude and thanks for their dedication,” the sheriff stated. “They’ve been our mainstay and we could not have accomplished what we have if not for them.”
“Now we just need some more dedicated employees to help continue that,” Smith added.
Reach Managing editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.