Protective status for COs working at Wis. jail under consideration

Sheriff Ron Cramer said it would result in younger people working the physically demanding job at the county jail

By Ryan Patterson
The Leader-Telegram

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — The Eau Claire County Board could consider granting protective status to local correctional officers, which would make them eligible to retire earlier with better benefits.

Protective status would allow correctional officers working in the Eau Claire County Jail to be eligible for retirement at age 50 and duty disability benefits if applicable. Last year, it was estimated that implementing protective status would cost the county about $750,000 per year.

It needs to be determined if the County Board has the legal authority to grant protective status for COs, so county attorney Sharon McIlquham will look into that and provide an update to the board soon. Granting protective status to correctional officers can also be done by changing state law.

The topic was discussed during the county Judiciary and Law Enforcement Committee meeting Wednesday. It was the committee's first in-person meeting in two years.

County deputy sheriff officers have protective status, and Supervisor Jerry Wilkie said correctional officers should as well.

"It's needed," said Wilkie, committee chairman. "It's not the silver bullet that's going to retain people in that position, but it's gonna help, and they certainly deserve protective status."

County Board Chairman Nick Smiar, a non-voting ex-officio committee member, voiced support for granting protective status and thinks most supervisors would as well.

"I believe that if the board were informed that we could do it, we would do it," Smiar said. "It's an equity issue, it's a fairness issue."

Sheriff Ron Cramer said protective status would likely result in younger people working the physically demanding job at the county jail. He said the challenges that accompany aging is a common topic among retired COs.

"Some of the people that we hired as correctional officers spent 30 years (working), and that was the biggest feedback, was that, 'I should've got out of there a long time ago,'" Cramer said.

ARP funding for jail

Cramer said the county recently applied for federal COVID-19 aid to build additional holding cells in the jail's booking area and is waiting to hear if the application was approved. If approved, the construction would be funded by money the county received under the American Rescue Plan Act.

Local activists have argued that, based on Treasury guidelines, new jail facilities are disqualified from being funded by ARP money.

"Our community deserves an intentional and preventative community resource plan to serve its members instead of the 'quick fix' of more concrete," Susan Wolfgram wrote in an email.

The jail proposal is estimated to cost $1.46 million to construct and $500,000 per year to operate. The remodeling would add 14 beds and create more room to house people undergoing quarantine as they enter the jail, a safety precaution that could help reduce the likelihood of a contagious disease like COVID-19 spreading. Cramer also said it would provide more room to house people with mental health challenges and people who are under the influence.

COVID-19 update

There was a likely COVID-19 outbreak at the jail earlier this year. In a Feb. 1 update, the jail said it "has identified positive cases of COVID-19 in one unit of our jail that appear to be linked."

Cramer said that required "a couple of the cell blocks" being locked down but that the spread is now "under control."

According to county data, as of March 14, the jail has administered 1,380 COVID-19 tests, 128 of which were positive, which is a 9.3% infection rate. Of those positive tests, 126 people have recovered, while two staff members are currently infected.

There have been zero hospitalizations or deaths.

Annual jail inspection

The committee received information about the annual county jail inspection done by the state on Dec. 8, in which no violations were found.

According to a Jan. 12 report from Brad Hoover, Detention Facilities Specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, the inspection "consisted of a tour of the facility; interviews with administration, staff and inmates; review of inmate files; and a review of facility records and documentation."

According to Hoover, there were 139 people incarcerated in the jail on the day of the inspection, and an encouraging atmosphere existed between employees and people incarcerated.

"My observations during the inspection revealed cordial and professional interactions between the staff and persons in custody," Hoover wrote. "Staff are to be commended for the positive feedback and facility climate."

Supervisor Melissa Janssen agreed.

"As somebody that has been fortunate to be in the jail several times, it's something that I've always observed," Janssen said.

Hoover recommended that the county hire an additional first line supervisor to work on "day-to-day operations along with assisting with future initiatives."

Cramer agreed and said that a request to fund another lieutenant position could soon come to the Judiciary and Law Enforcement Committee.

"We're getting to the point where we need some more high-level supervision in the jail, because there are so many issues that do come up on a daily basis," Cramer said.


(c)2022 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.)

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