Minn. jails struggle to find staff, sometimes closing jail wings

"No one wants to be a corrections officer anymore," said Sheriff Brad Peterson


By Tim Krohn
The Free Press
        
MANKATO, Minn. — Virtually every business struggles to find employees, but when you run a jail that requires 24/7 protection and care of inmates in a way that meets state requirements, there aren't many ways to cut back on services.

Le Sueur County Sheriff Brett Mason is director of one of the six sheriff's districts in Minnesota and says problems with jail staffing are widespread.

"It's as bad as I've ever seen. There are some counties even looking at closing their jails down. We're in a bad way."

Blue Earth County's jail isn't using part of its facility because they didn't have enough staff as required by the state to care for the number of inmates they had.
Blue Earth County's jail isn't using part of its facility because they didn't have enough staff as required by the state to care for the number of inmates they had. (Blue Earth County)

In his department he's juggling to keep the jail staffed.

"We have three job offerings today. I have licensed deputies that are helping in the jail," Mason said.

Blue Earth County Sheriff Brad Peterson said it's tougher filling all jobs in the department, from deputies to dispatchers, but jail staff is one of the toughest to fill.

"It's a huge problem across the country. No one wants to be a corrections officer anymore. We keep plugging away. We're at the position where if someone comes in and wants to be a jailer, we'll put together an interview team quickly and interview them and do background checks."

Even for licensed deputy jobs, fewer applications come in when there's an opening. "We would have 93 or 99 applications for a deputy, then a couple of years ago it was 57, then 33 and now we had 15 applicants for a deputy position," Peterson said.

Some counties have been more fortunate in keeping their jails staffed, for now anyway.

"Currently we're doing fine. But when we have those openings for jail or dispatch or patrol, the number of applicants aren't like they used to be," said Nicollet County Sheriff Dave Lange.

He got approval from the county board to add a dispatcher position last year but so far hasn't been able to fill it. But he hasn't had to use deputies to help out in the jail, which has about 10 inmates, including one or two who are being housed for Blue Earth County because they are short on jail staff.

Lange has 13 custody staff and a jail programmer and administrator.

Unique challenges

Cpt. Paul Barta of the Blue Earth County Sheriff's Office said their jail in Mankato faces some unique challenges because it houses more inmates than many area county jails.

When they are fully staffed at the jail they have 42 full- and part-time custody, programming, administration and clerical staff.

"At our worst time we were down nine or 10 positions. Now we're hovering around five down. Sometimes we hire one or two and then some leave, so it can be one step forward and two back sometimes. But we are making a little headway in recruitment and retention," Barta said.

All jails have had lower inmate counts over the past couple of years than they did pre-pandemic, as the courts, law enforcement and prosecutors worked to send fewer people to jail by using diversion programs and other efforts.

For example, someone who had a warrant out on them for a misdemeanor crime who was stopped used to go to jail, processed and held until they posted bail. But now law enforcement sends them a letter telling them when they need to appear in court instead. Barta said those kinds of changes are likely to stay as they have worked and most people do show up for their court date.

"No one in law enforcement likes putting people in jail, and we've worked harder at ways not to have to do it during COVID."

Blue Earth County's jail used to average about 115 inmates pre-COVID but now average in the low 70s.
Still, the jail isn't using part of its facility because they didn't have enough staff as required by the state to care for the number of inmates they had.

"We pay $55 per day to house inmates at other jails. We were paying for 20 to be housed elsewhere for a while. That's $400,000 a year — it gets up to real money fast." Barta said the county has gotten to the point of only having to house one or a few elsewhere.

The starting pay for a jailer is about $23 an hour, with the pay rising to about $30 based on steps and experience.

"Starting pay at Kwik Trip or Walmart or Target are as good or better than the starting wage we have," Barta said.

Another problem is that enrollments in law enforcement programs at Minnesota State University and other colleges and universities have fallen sharply, likely a result of the criticism of police in recent years leading fewer to want to enter the field. Jails relied heavily on those law enforcement graduates who took jail jobs to gain experience while they worked toward getting their license to become police officers or deputies.

Mental health issues

Mason said Le Sueur jail staff was down six positions for a while, out of a total staff of 13. "We're down four now and we're fully staffed on the road crew and still down two in dispatch." The jail averages around 26-35 inmates on any given day.

He said the level of pay and a new generation that doesn't want to do the taxing work of 12-hour shifts that include weekends and nights make it tougher to find jail staff.

"The mental health issues in jail is a big thing, too. We're not mental health officials and it gets very stressful working there," Mason said.

Barta said one-third of inmates test positive for mental illnesses.

"Some are very acute. Some need a lot of attention, and it's stressful to jail staff. We have staff rather than nurses having to hand out medication and things and that takes away from other things they need to do."

The Blue Earth County Board recently approved increased funding for the jail to pay for more hours that nurses and mental health professionals visit the jail.

Despite the challenges, working in jails can be a rewarding job.

Barta said many people with mental illnesses go off their medications and then get in trouble and end up in jail.

"It's amazing how well our staff can work with people and get them back to taking their medication. You see people that leave the jail in a lot better situation than when they came in, so it's very challenging work but very rewarding, too."
   
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