Among a county’s most basic responsibilities are to maintain a courthouse, sheriff’s office and county jail.
County jails don’t garner a lot of praise or attention — they’re often stark behemoths on the outskirts of town, out of sight and out of mind. But safely operating a jail to hold defendants until trial or for short-term sentences is essential to the administration of justice.
And in its administration of the Metropolitan Detention Center, Bernalillo County is walking a staffing tightrope that could snap at any minute.
The corrections officer vacancy rate at MDC has climbed to more than 50%. On a recent Saturday there were just 13 officers and two supervisors for the entire jail — eight shy of what union president Joseph Trujeque says is the bare minimum to watch the 1,300 inmates the jail averages each night. (Today’s average inmate population is far below MDC’s 1,950 capacity.)
For those who would dismiss this as the criticism of a union guy who just wants more for his members, that ratio was just one corrections professional for every 87 inmates.
And that means inmates have good reason if they’re not happy. Short staffing means weekend-long lockdowns with no showers, phone calls or outdoor time.
Little wonder on June 4 MDC Chief Greg Richardson declared what may be the first-ever staffing state of emergency. The declaration set aside overtime limits and required officers on duty to stay, others to come in.
Such drastic measures might work in the short-term, but exhausted corrections officers are destined to become injured or burned-out ex-corrections officers.
And while the pandemic and across-the-economy staffing shortages are undoubtedly contributing factors at MDC as elsewhere, the bottom line is conditions are untenable — for corrections officers, inmates, visitors and the taxpayers who fork over more than $62 million annually to run the jail.
And remember, MDC remains party to a 2015 settlement agreement in a decades-old lawsuit about conditions there.
So what can the county do? Three requests for the New Mexico National Guard to come in and do support work that would free up corrections officers have been denied. Running a county jail is not the Guard’s job, and they have been a little busy helping with COVID-19 and wildfires.
The Bernalillo County Commission passed an emergency resolution to temporarily transfer employees to do administrative work at the jail. Five or six went over but have since returned to their normal duties.
Clearly the county needs a better plan.
Requirements to be a corrections officers are already minimal: 18 years old, high school diploma or GED, U.S. citizen or permanent resident eligible to work in the United States, and a valid driver’s license.
The $18.90 per hour starting wage is less than the $20.72 offered at the Santa Fe County jail or $20 at the state Corrections Department, but in October the county began offering a $2,000 hiring bonus and a longevity package. MDC also offers double pay on weekends. Richardson says MDC has participated in several hiring fairs around the county.
Trujeque says the union is continuing to negotiate a pay raise and triple the hiring bonus.
County Commissioner Walt Benson says “the total employment package probably needs to be more aggressive.”
In addition to bigger signing bonuses, some creativity might also help. Ultimately the county needs to figure out what it takes to hire and keep people at MDC. Is it better money? Shorter and more regular hours? Would more vacation time help? A better retirement plan? Other fringe benefits to sweeten the pot?
Having an inadequate number of correctional officers is the stuff prison movies are made of. Trujeque is right, it increases chances of suicides, fights, even a full-blown riot and puts everyone in the building at risk of injury or worse — and the county at risk of another endless lawsuit.
Bernalillo County leaders need to figure out how to attract and retain correctional officers so everyone at MDC is safe — ASAP. It’s one of their basic responsibilities.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.