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‘I’ve never seen it this bad': Staff shortages spur departures at Ky. jail

Officials said they are transferring more inmates to state prisons to deal with staff shortages

By Beth Musgrave
Lexington Herald-Leader

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Lexington officials said they are transferring more inmates to state prisons and will move staff into different positions to deal with staff shortages at the crowded Fayette County Detention Center that employees say are leading to multiple overtime shifts and staff burnout.

“I’ve never, ever seen it this bad,” said Emily Brian, an 11-year corrections officer at the Fayette County Detention Center during an Oct. 25 Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council meeting. “We need change.”

Steve Parker, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Town Branch Lodge 83, the union for corrections officers, told the council staff shortages mean many officers are working two straight shifts — a regular and an overtime shift — or 16-hour days — sometimes “three or four times a week.”

Many officers have quit to take jobs in neighboring county jails that pay $5 less than Fayette County but those jails don’t require overtime, Parker said.

“They want to see their kids and families,” Parker said.

Scott Crosbie, a lawyer who represents the union, said the union thinks there could be as many as 100 people who have left the facility in the past year.

“They have got to have some relief now,” Crosbie said during the Oct. 25 meeting. “Or those numbers are going to get worse.”

The city says there are currently 42 vacant positions at the facility. The facility is authorized to hire 278 officers. Meanwhile, the inmate population has continued to increase. It topped more than 1,500 in late October, Parker said. The department has already spent most of its overtime budget — $935, 600 of its $1 million overtime budget — in the first four months of the fiscal year, which began July 1.

Fayette County Detention Center Director Steve Haney said the department has taken some immediate steps to alleviate overtime. Fifteen inmates eligible to serve sentences in state prisons were picked up by state prison officials last week.

“We have been in communication with the state Department of Corrections and they did give us some immediate relief,” Haney said. In total, there are more than 70 inmates at the jail that can be moved to state prisons. That includes the 15 inmates moved last week. By decreasing the population, the jail can decrease the number of required staff.

In addition, Haney said officials have worked with the union to provide short-term staffing relief. That plan includes reassigning some staff to front-line positions in the housing units. That plan should take effect Nov. 27, which will hopefully alleviate the overtime. The reorganization plan will also utilize more floater positions. The staffing plan that will be reviewed again on Jan. 15.

That plan was unveiled to prison officers starting this weekend and Monday. The union and the administration have been meeting for weeks, Crosbie said.

“We appreciate the collective effort, involving the FOP and (jail) management, towards immediate relief, particularly as the holidays are coming,” said Michael Harris, the FOP vice president. “Fayette County Detention Center management and FOP leadership held a joint-shift briefing this morning to announce the staffing adjustments. “

Meanwhile, more recruits are moving through the hiring process.

A class of 15 recruits will graduate soon. A second class of as many as 20 officers will start in December and will graduate and be available by mid-February, said Glenn Brown, a former jail administrator and the city’s deputy chief administrative officer.

Staffing at the jail has long been a problem. Three years ago, the city agreed to increase starting pay from $12 an hour to $16 once someone is hired full-time and completes the probationary stage. That helped for a while. In May, there were zero vacancies at the jail, Haney said.

People have left for a variety of reasons, including some terminations for misconduct.

In addition to staff vacancies, the jail is also facing other staffing pressures because so many inmates are ill because of drug use.

“We have eight inmates right now that are in the hospital,” Brown said last week. Inmates in the hospital have to be accompanied by an officer at all times. Some have to have two officers with them because they are considered dangerous. The increase in inmate hospitalizations means fewer officers available to staff housing units, Brown said.

“We are dealing with the drug epidemic and that’s driving an increase in our hospitalizations and it has a direct impact on our staffing levels,” Haney said.

There are other correction officers on leave for military duty, maternity or other family leave, or have been hurt on the job, further depleting the number of staff available, Brown said.

Harris said the union and the city have also agreed to meet over the next few months to determine if the staff reassignment plans are working.

“If the plan is not working, the FOP and Director Haney have agreed to revisit these measures to make adjustments,” Harris said. “We have also agreed to work together on the underlying problems of increasing inmate populations and employee retention.”