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Wash. sheriff voices frustration over jail’s staffing and maintenance issues

“It’s the same things that I’ve been discussing over the past however many years now, it’s the safety, it’s the staffing, and it’s the facility, and the things that are not being done to progress,” Adams County Sheriff Dale Wagner said


Sheriff Wagner gives a tour of the jail in 2022.

Adams County Sheriff’s Office

By Gabriel Davis
Columbia Basin Herald, Moses Lake, Wash.

RITZVILLE, Wash. — Adams County Sheriff Dale Wagner spoke with the Adams County Commissioners during Tuesday’s regular meeting to discuss the Adams County jail’s staffing and maintenance issues.

Wagner said that more jail employees are leaving or considering leaving their positions, including a commander, sergeant, a corporal and a line deputy. The jail has been closed since May 2022, when an altercation between inmates left a corrections officer and one of the inmates seriously injured. After that incident, several staff members left.

“In talking with them and trying to figure out what are the driving factors, it’s the same things that I’ve been discussing over the past however many years now, it’s the safety, it’s the staffing, and it’s the facility, and the things that are not being done to progress ... they’re not complaining about the pay. But they are seeing bigger pay for less responsibilities and more safety somewhere else.”

Wagner said he has explained to staff that he has been trying to work on the jail’s maintenance needs.

“They know that the pay is something that is out of my control. It’s almost out of your control. Now you guys have entered into a contract. That’s not even a discussion that I can have with these people. But I’m looking at the jail overall and it’s starting to affect the progress within the other entities of the sheriff’s office. I’m having to draw from my patrol, which I just got to full staff. We have two in the academy and one in training. Now I have to pull from patrol to man the jail, especially in the leadership roles, to get things straightened out in there as best we can.”

This issue is not isolated to Adams County, Wagner said.

“I’ve talked to almost every sheriff across the state in one way, fashion or form. Everybody’s dealing with the same issue, everybody’s down,” Wagner said. “The reality is corrections is hard to staff right now. But that doesn’t mean that we just give up, throw our hands up ... We need a plan. And I’m not hearing any plans. I’m getting a little bit frustrated.”

Wagner referred multiple times to the Adams County Public Works Department, led by Executive Director Todd O’Brien, and other Adams County staff.

“Nothing against Todd. I get it. They’re short-handed, too. But he has his priorities, and it’s not the jail. I need the jail to be a priority,” Wagner said.

The jail is currently in need of numerous repairs. Wagner said out of a list of about 30 repairs or safety concerns in the jail, the board of commissioners agreed to focus on funding the top five in April 2023, and Public Works committed to finish them by the end of the year.

“The last time we talked, we narrowed it down to the five ... none of that has been done. To this date, nothing has been worked on but the roof, and that was a four-year ago project that just got finished. The other stuff inside the jail is not being done,” Wagner said. “These are simple fixes. The whole list is simple fixes.”

Wagner clarified he was not looking to spread blame.

“I haven’t been bashing the commissioners, and that’s not my intention here today,” Wagner said. “But something needs to give here. Something needs to be done. The focus needs to be either we’re just going to be a transport service or we’re going to fix what we have and get it moving. But it needs to start moving.”

Wagner said staffing is his primary concern.

“We have to also look at where we’re going from here,” he said. “I have no commander right now, and at the rate of pay that we’re going to offer, we’re not going to get a commander to do it. Not with a jail that has no staff and he’s got to worry about everything.”

Wagner said that it is not a requirement that the Sheriff’s department run the jail, but Wagner said it is in the best interest of the county that they continue to do so.

“I’m going to do what I can. I have four people in the hiring pool right now. Hopefully, we can have them hired by the end of the month. If nobody else leaves, that leaves me with six, all brand new, untrained.”

Commissioner Dan Blankenship responded to Wagner’s request for a more concrete plan.

“One of the problems in trying to come up with a plan is we’ve got this $2 million request sitting out there in Congressman Newhouse’s Office, which we still don’t know whether we’re going to get it. So we don’t know what to allocate dollars to do or to not do. We don’t know how much money we have to work with. We’ve got, whatever it is, x number of dollars in the (American Rescue Plan Act) fund that we are going to put towards jail improvements, and we need to get an answer from Public Works on how much of their budget is going to these five, and then continuing with how much of that ARPA allocation is going to have to be used to do that.”

Blankenship said a sit down between the commissioners, Public Works and Wagner may be in order to make sure everybody is on the same page.

“I just want the board to know we need to start doing something to make some kind of progress in the jail as for what you control. Now, money, I get it. I get what you’re saying, Dan, I totally understand it. But this list of things that we’ve made...these are simple fixes, in my view,” Wagner said. “But the reality is (nothing), in my view, is being done to address them.”


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