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Detention employees: Jail in 'state of crisis'

August 12, 2002|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

Washington County Detention Center employees claim a pay gap between correctional officers and patrol deputies, along with a lack of support from Sheriff Charles Mades and the County Commissioners, have put the jail in a state of crisis.

Deputy 1st Class Linda Weicht, a correctional officer, said low morale has generated talk among detention center employees about asking commissioners to take the jail out of the sheriff's control and run it as a separate county facility.

"Then take us away from the sheriff and give us someone who will look out for us," Weicht said.

Weicht, Sgt. Ed Long, Cpl. Daryl Long, Sgt. Terri Blair, Cpl. Tony Pepple and Deputy 1st Class Ted Ellis said the team environment at the Sheriff's Department began evaporating two years ago when, at the request of Mades, patrol deputies received an 8 percent raise from the commissioners.

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Detention center deputies thought they also should have received the raise, which fueled feelings of helplessness and of lack of support from Mades and the county, they said.

All six detention center employees who spoke out earn more than the average salaries of patrol and other detention deputies, with annual wages ranging from $40,000 to $48,600, according to the county's list of salaries for fiscal year 2003. The average patrol division salary is $34,611, while the average detention division salary is $31,886, according to the Sheriff's Department.

A question of respect



Still, the six employees said they're not treated as well as the patrol division.

"Our job is every bit as important and as difficult," said Pepple, a shift commander who has worked for the detention center for 15 years.

"It's not fair to us," Weicht said. "We deserve the recognition that the patrol division receives. We want to be respected by our sheriff, by our county commissioners and by the public."

Mades said he doesn't know why the jail employees feel he doesn't support them.

"I've been through that since I've been here," Mades said. "I just don't know why they have that impression. Nobody has ever slighted them."

He said when he requested the raise for patrol deputies two years ago, the Washington County Sheriff's Department was the only department in the state that paid its correctional officers what patrol deputies earned.

"Law enforcement officers weren't on level with everybody else" (in the state), he said. "Correctional officers, at the time, were equal. If they feel I'm the bad guy, I'm the bad guy."

Ellis, a correctional line officer who has worked for the Sheriff's Department for 17 years, said he and the five other detention employees interviewed earn more than the patrol average because each has at least 15 years of service with the department. If they worked for the patrol division for the same number of years, he claims they would be earning higher salaries.

"Everyone would," Ellis said.

Morale problems



Lt. M. Van Evans, warden of the detention center, said he knows a morale problem exists at the jail but he doesn't know how to solve it.

"If I had the answer to that, I certainly would be working on it," Evans said.

Capt. Douglas W. Mullendore, chief deputy, said being locked in a jail with criminals daily might contribute to the low morale of the correctional officers.

"The people they deal with on a daily basis are not the cream of society," Mullendore said.

The pay raise issue, staffing shortages and low morale helped contribute to 47 employees leaving the detention center since 1994, an average of six per year, the detention employees said.

County Administrator Rodney Shoop said he couldn't verify that 47 employees left over the last eight years and referred the question to Human Resources Director Alan Davis.

Davis said he would have to research how many detention center employees left but then did not return a phone call asking whether he had checked.

"We can't hire people as fast as we lose them," Ellis said.

Ellis said the lack of staff as a result of the high turnover rate has put the jail in a state of crisis and endangers the lives of correctional officers.

"We don't want the inmates to know we're understaffed, but they already know it," Ellis said.

Ellis said the jail often operates with as few as 12 correctional officers per shift. The detention center employs 89 officers. The inmate population at the jail is currently 394, the deputies said.

"We're threatened every day," Pepple said. "They want to put more cops on (the streets), but they don't want to put more correctional officers on."

Lack of loyalty?



Pepple and other detention center employees questioned the loyalty of the sheriff, saying he has never worked in a correctional facility.

"We have a retired police officer as our boss. Where are his loyalties going to lie?" Pepple asked. "He's facing a crisis, and he should be yelling to the commissioners, and he's not saying anything."

"He's never walked that line alone," Weicht said. "Unless you've walked the walk, you can't talk the talk."

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