Jail under the microscope

An over-capacity jail, inmate deaths, employee overtime run amok. These are the times that try a sheriff’s soul.

Newly appointed Sheriff Ty Trenary is managing the crashcade (typo intended) of events remarkably well, considering. The antidote to agency fires is extinguishing them quickly. So far, Trenary exhibits the requisite backbone and judgment. But his mettle will be tested.

Systemic troubles are hitched together. Limited resources feed an overtime culture — compounded by a poorly managed seniority system that compensates some employees for not working at all.

As The Herald’s Scott North, Eric Stevick and Diana Hefley reported last Sunday, jail deputies have racked up $9 million in overtime since 2010. A “skipping” provision in the jail’s labor contract requires senior corrections officers be paid if they’re “inadvertently” skipped over by more junior employees to serve voluntary overtime. As Trenary noted, “To pay somebody for not working is offensive.”

Overtime can be tamped down. The sheriff’s office plans to purchase new software to automate scheduling to incorporate labor and union rules. And supervisors determining who is assigned must be held accountable if phantom-employee overtime is invoked unnecessarily.

The pattern of adding hours, with a few dozen staffers on hyper-drive, has been a long-term annoyance. In 2002, North reported on $2 million in overtime, double the amount budgeted. An earlier audit noted that the jail could save $1 million simply by hiring more staff.

The primary focus still is implementing the recommendations of the National Institute of Corrections to boost health services. Trenary hired a three-day-a-week doctor and aims to transition to electronic medical records and enhanced screening of inmates before they’re booked. The deaths of inmates Michael Saffioti and Lyndsey Lason, emblematic of institutional neglect, can never be repeated.

The jail remains a way station for those living with mental illness. Reversing the status quo extends well beyond the jail and demands a major infusion of resources.

Accepting contract prisoners from out of the area and at times not delivering them back to their city of origin? That shouldn’t be part of any inter-agency contract.

Trenary recognizes what needs to be done. Ratcheting down the inmate population and hiring more staff; making supervisors accountable; and strict scrutiny of corrections’ applicants to weed out cretins who commit sexual offenses against inmates.

We turn away from institutions that make us recoil, such as the jail and the morgue. Not coincidentally, it’s these very institutions that run into trouble. Throwing light on dark corners, however discomforting, is in the public interest.

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