Ill. county stepping up recruitment efforts to address jail staffing crisis
The Lake County Sheriff’s Office corrections division is down nearly 40% of its normal staffing levels due to vacancies, family and medical leave and other absences
By Chloe Hilles
WAUKEGAN, Ill. — More than 50 people have been transferred from the Lake County jail to the McHenry County jail due to ongoing staff shortages at the Waukegan facility.
Correctional staff shortages are occurring throughout the country and even internationally, according to Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, an independent correctional oversight organization.
“This is a huge issue writ large for jails and prisons,” she said.
Lake County correctional officers cannot safely operate the jail with current staffing levels, according to the Lake County sheriff’s office. The county has been working to develop new recruitment methods to address staff shortages across all departments.
About 100 people are expected to be transferred 35 miles west to the jail in Woodstock. Last week, the Lake County jail had a population of a little more than 500 inmates but can house 740, according to the county’s website.
The Lake County sheriff’s corrections division is down nearly 40% of its normal staffing levels due to vacancies, family and medical leave and other absences, according to a news release from the office.
“This transfer is necessary to alleviate safety concerns amid a staffing crisis at the Lake County jail,” the release said.
The sheriff’s office is selecting inmates to transfer primarily based on when their next court appearance is scheduled to ensure there is enough time to transport the individual to and from the Woodstock lock up, according to Christopher Covelli, spokesperson for the Lake County sheriff’s office.
Transfers can have a negative impact on most incarcerated people and cause a variety of complications, Vollen-Katz said, primarily because it moves them farther away from their home, attorneys and support systems.
“It just simply begins to stall the wheels of justice in terms of the case progressing, but it also has a personal impact in terms of making it more difficult for people to visit their loved one who is being detained, and that can be very difficult for people who are in jail,” she said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, visitation at the Lake County jail happens exclusively over teleconference, not in-person. Covelli said virtual visitation will continue for those who are transferred to McHenry County.
“We found that it is logistically much easier for inmates to visit with loved ones virtually, versus across from a secured window,” he said.
McHenry County will be responsible for transporting inmates to and from the Lake County Courthouse for hearings. Inmates held in Woodstock will be able to communicate with their lawyers via Zoom, in person or by phone, according to the county.
Difficult to retain correctional staff
All Lake County departments have expressed recruitment and hiring issues for at least the past year, according to Lake County Administrator Patrice Sutton. The sheriff’s office, which has been operating with less than full staff for several years, indicated in the fall that something needed to change to address the shortage, she said.
“The COVID pandemic has made it more difficult to recruit and retain certain jobs, and (correctional officers) is certainly one of those,” Sutton said.
Because of the shortage, there’s been a “tremendous amount” of overtime, with staff having to work multiple shifts, which can take a mental and physical strain on staff, she said.
Working conditions also affect the number of people working in correctional facilities, said Vollen-Katz, who has spoken with people who run and work at correctional agencies.
“The conditions that the people who are incarcerated live in are the same conditions that people who work in prisons and jails work in, and we don’t often think about it like that,” she said. “For instance, when you have facilities that don’t have air conditioning in the summer and it reaches 100 degrees in the cellblock, it’s impacting everybody in there, and it’s something we need to be concerned about.”
At some facilities, employees have to keep their phone in a lock box for their whole shift, which Vollen-Katz said is unusual in this day and age. Facilities are also run 24/7, so new employees are often working third shift.
“We’ve started to see salaries rise, we’ve seen recruitment bonuses, retention bonuses, none of which are having a very meaningful impact to be honest,” she said. “There have been studies that show that people who work in corrections in this day and age want to be seen as community helpers, and that is not how they’re viewed by and large. So they don’t feel as if their profession is one that’s getting the respect.”
County plans to address shortages
To address staff shortages in the sheriff’s office and across all departments, Sutton said Lake County is in the process of implementing new technology that will increase the county’s digital footprint in recruitment markets.
“This will allow us to get access to more potential candidates, and then have a more streamlined and professional interaction with potential candidates as well,” she said. “We are really trying to modernize our recruitment process.”
Several departments are beginning to implement the new technology, but the sheriff’s office is not up and running yet, according to the county administrator.
Contract negotiations between the county and the Illinois Police Benevolent and Protective Association, the union representing Lake County correctional officers, have been ongoing.
Wage and benefit negotiations are part of that process to hopefully address recruitment problems, Sutton said.
Under the jail transfer agreement, which could continue for up to two years, Lake County will pay McHenry County $100 per inmate per day to house its inmates.
Lake County officials say the move will not have a substantial financial impact because housing inmates in McHenry County will allow Lake County to reduce overtime spending and other operational expenses.