N.M. county jail overcomes staffing crisis, boosts employee morale with 25% pay increase
The Santa Fe County Jail also saw “immediate results” from ramped-up recruitment efforts that included flyers and weekly rapid hire events this summer
By Maya Hilty
The Santa Fe New Mexican
SANTA FE, N.M. — When staffing levels in the Santa Fe County jail dropped during the pandemic, Warden Derek Williams said the remaining staff were burned out and withdrawn.
Two years later, a staff reduction and efforts to recruit and retain detention officersl have paid off, and the mood among jailers has changed.
“As of today, it just warms your heart to come and see people say, ‘Hey, good morning, it was a good weekend, what’s going on?’” Williams said in an interview. “They’re excited to be there, and you can feel it. You can directly see it.”
Earlier this month, the jail had only five vacancies, or an 8% vacancy rate, Williams said, the lowest in the state for a jail its size.
In 2020, the Santa Fe County jail averaged a 10% vacancy rate among entry-level detention officers. By the following year, that rate had doubled to an average of 42%. In 2022, the percentage of unfilled positions climbed to an average of 49%.
The jail’s success filling positions in the past six months — half of those jobs remained unfilled as recently as April — has resulted from a combination of factors, including significant pay increases.
Over the past 18 months, with the approval of county commissioners, detention officers’ salaries increased by 25%, said Deputy County Manager Elias Bernardino.
A brand-new officer today starts at $26 per hour. An officer with three years of experience starts at $27.44 per hour, and one with five years of experience starts at $28.88.
“That’s just mountains over what they’re being offered” elsewhere in the state, Williams said.
For years, the jail has bounced between poaching officers from and losing officers to nearby jails and prisons.
“They’d get a raise, so we’d try to get a raise, you know,” Williams said. “Instead of just trying to hold steady to [competitors], we decided to be the lead in what the market is for a correctional officer. ... We made sure we went above and beyond.”
Pay increases were in part possible because of the warden’s decision, during the pandemic, to stop housing federal inmates. The jail formerly housed about 150 people for the U.S. Marshals Service, but refusing those prisoners allowed the warden to eliminate 14 entry-level detention officer positions. That reduced the number needed to fully staff the jail from 79 to 65 while maintaining safe staff-to-inmate ratios, he said. Those numbers do not include the jail’s 11 sergeants and six lieutenants.
The jail has capacity for over 600 people, but the number of people incarcerated usually hovers around 250, said Maj. Carlos Markman Lopez.
The jail also saw “immediate results” from ramped-up recruitment efforts that included flyers, promotional videos, a huge banner on N.M. 14 and weekly rapid hire events this summer, Williams said. To help attract millennials, county human resources staff expedited hiring to the point of calling applicants within hours of receiving an application, Bernardino added.
Jail leaders have also tried to build morale and create a culture among staff of taking care of each other with things like grilling burgers for officers, keeping up with training and continuing to follow up with new officers once they graduate from training. Early this year, the county opened a trailer beside the facility that has windows, couches, a kitchen and a gym for staff to use on breaks or before or after work.
As most people can imagine, jail is a negative environment, Lopez said.
People are regularly cycling through: Nearly half of people booked into the jail leave within 48 hours, Bernardino said.
Detention officers constantly supervise people in the housing units, check on their health needs, transport them to medical providers and to and from in-person or video court dates and stand ready to provide any emergency response.
When staffing was low, officers had to wear multiple hats, Williams described.
“You’re thinking, ‘OK, does he have mental health issues? Does he go to case management? Has he taken his meds? Is he talking with this family? Is his physical appearance changing? All these different things, and it’s really taxing,” he said. “When you’re put back there and 30 guys are your responsibility for the next 12 hours ... that’s a lot.
On top of that, during the peak of the pandemic, while many people worked from home, detention officers didn’t have that option, Bernardino said.
Instead, the pandemic pulled more officers off the line as they transported people to the hospital more often, Williams said. The jail had to temporarily institute mandatory overtime, meaning 16-hour shifts rather than 12-hour shifts.
“It was rough,” Williams said; that’s why increased staffing has visibly boosted morale.
“We’re very lucky,” he said. “It didn’t come magically. It took a lot of work and a lot of support from all the departments in the county.”
Going forward, the jail will focus on retaining staff and expanding programs to reduce offender recidivism, Bernardino said.
“We’ve been successful, but we also recognize that it’s not a long-term solution because I’m pretty sure there [are] going to be other facilities that are going to follow suit,” he said.
Almost 20 detention officers moved to the county jail from the state penitentiary across the street, Williams said, which already had a vacancy rate of 41.5% in April, according to the state Corrections Department.
This month, Santa Fe County was one of 12 in New Mexico with a less than 15% vacancy rate. Vacancy rates in Taos, Bernalillo, Quay and McKinley counties reached between 40% and 57%, according to data from Grace Philips, general counsel for the nonprofit New Mexico Counties.
In 2022, state prisons had an average staff vacancy rate of about 30% in both the publicly and privately operated facilities, a slight increase over 2021, according to the Corrections Department.
“All we’re doing is basically poaching from each other,” Bernardino said.
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