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Shortage of COs could force closure of Wash. corrections center

Geiger Corrections Center staff are being pulled into service at the Spokane County Jail, as the jail reaches pre-COVID numbers in 2022

By Quinn Welsch
The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.

AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. — A staffing shorting may force Spokane County to close the Geiger Corrections Center in Airway Heights, Detention Services Director Mike Sparber told Spokane County commissioners last week.

As more corrections officers are moved from Geiger to cover shifts at the Spokane County Jail, the department is faced with a problem that, if left unchecked, could shift all of the officers and inmates from Geiger into the already overcrowded county jail, either incrementally or all at once, he said.

“It’s not a very rosy picture, but that’s what it would come down to ... just managing the bed space,” Sparber said.

As the jail reaches pre-COVID numbers in 2022, more officers are also needed, Sparber said. But without those new hires, the jail will need to consistently pull from its ranks at Geiger to staff the jail, which is its main priority, he said.

Detention services programs at Geiger, such as its work crew program, and different floors of the facility would eventually be shut down as a result, he said. Geiger typically houses lower-level offenders.

“The new hire process is not keeping pace with our attrition,” he said. “It really boils down to what we can handle with the resources we have.”

The Detention Services Department will begin consolidating the two facilities if it loses as few as three or four more corrections officers, Sparber told the commissioners.

The Spokane County jail population reached 844 this August for all of its facilities. Last August that number was 774, and in August 2020 it was 708. In August 2019 it was 934.

“Because of our housing, we have to prioritize the charges and some are released from the jail and some aren’t,” Sparber said.

Sparber added that he would not put the public at risk.

The number of open corrections officers positions has reached an all-time high of 35, he said. Twelve are in the hiring process, but it takes nine months before they are ready for solo duty.

The department has a total of 330 positions with 56 vacancies, which includes corrections officers.

Despite the sign-up bonuses of $7,500 for new hires and $10,000 for lateral hires, fewer people are willing to take the job, Sparber said. Only about 12 or 13 people will show up for the preliminary corrections officer tests, whereas that number used to be 50 or 60, he said.

“It’s a cultural thing,” the department’s human resources director Ashley Steward Cameron told county commissioners.

The job is becoming harder with longer hours and more violent offenders coming into the corrections officers’ care, she said.

“I don’t know if a sign-on bonus does a whole lot more for us,” she said. “People are tired and burning out quickly.”

The pay for corrections officers ranges from $67,000 to $90,000.

Spokane County Detention Services is also competing with other law enforcement offices for new hires. Sparber said the department is “easy pickings for law enforcement” because they already have some training and background tests.

“We’re more of a feeder for law enforcement, and that’s where people want to be,” Cameron added. “Because so many jobs are opening, we’re just not seeing the level of interest in the correctional facility when there are so many law enforcement positions open.”

Many of the corrections officers are also aging out of the role. More than one-third of the corrections officers in Spokane County are over the age of 50, Sparber said.

Cameron said that many of the department’s staff are taking advantage of the recently provided Washington state paid family leave. As much as 25% of department staff are on leave at any given time, she said.

The problem is compounded as many of the inmates awaiting trial at the Spokane County Jail are not cycling through quickly enough due to a backlog of court cases caused by COVID-19 restrictions from the past two years, Sparber said.