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Staffing Crisis at the Vanderburgh County Jail

 A Vanderburgh County Jail Confinement Officer walks to a men's confinement area in early July. The county jail is chronically short staffed, with high turnover and a burgeoning jail population.
Tim Jagielo
A Vanderburgh County Jail Confinement Officer walks to a men's confinement area in early July. The county jail is chronically short staffed, with high turnover and a burgeoning jail population.

Perfect storm of jail crowding and disinterest in law enforcement careers creating burden for officers, tension for inmates

It’s recreation or ‘rec’ time at this men's cell block at the Vanderburgh County Jail.

Dewayne Hutton is in jail waiting for his court date like most inmates here.

This rec time is important for them becauseit gets them out of their communal cells to stretch their legs a little bit.

He said he can, “come out, eat, talk to other peers in here. Have fun, the most fun we can have in jail, which isn't much you know?”

The problem is that the Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s office is in a staffing crisis according to Sheriff Dave Wedding. Chronically they don’t have enough confinement officers.

“Right now, our staffing levels are at a critically low disposition,” Wedding said. “We're very concerned that the people who are not interested in coming to work for us is causing us to be unreasonably low staff, a lot of extra work for officers, and is putting a heck of a burden on the entire office.”

It’s not just a problem here. Posey County, Warrick County and Gibson County reported the same challenges, though Vanderburgh county is by far the most populous.

Vanderburgh County's Jail Crisis.mp4

Wedding has been with the department for more than 40 years. When he first started, there were waiting lists to get a call for a job in the jail. It’s much different now.

“We're having trouble recruiting applicants, we've changed our hiring practices to try to make it more conducive for people who might want to apply,” he said. “We've lowered our standards, and we're still having difficulty seeking, attracting and hiring new applicants.”

This spring, Wedding asked the County Commision for a temporary pay increase for union officers, which was accepted.

It doesn’t help that the county populations’ growth also increased the jail population which was about 180 in 1980 and pushes 800 now.

“We are at least 25 officers short presently,” he said. “And that means each and every shift is at least five or more officers short. What happens there when you try and do minimal staffing levels. If you let somebody off vacation, or some other reason, then we start to shift short staff and my that happening, we have to call in other people to fill those voids. So it's very routine that we're calling people in or holding people over to fill our staffing voids.”

Wedding says frequent unplanned overtime is a burden and stressor for the confinement officers they do keep on staff.

Inmates like DeWayne Hutton says it most directly impacts his ability to get ‘rec’ time in the commons area.

“If they don't have the manpower to get everyone out, my slice suffers,” he said. “Like we don't get to come out. Like out of the three weeks I've been here, we might see an hour out when we should have like six hours out. So if they're understaffed, our rec’s cut.”

The officer today is Confinement Officer Boots. He’s answering questions and filtering among the inmates on the floor. We’ll just use rank and last names to respect /their/ departmental policy of not using officer’s first names in the jail.

In the intake area, Confinement Officer Stewart is working. She’s vacuum sealing valuables from new inmates.

“Basically, I am processing inmate property from a fresh arrest that just came in to be photographed and sealed in the property room.”

“I've worked here for five years and it's progressively gone down and you see the stress and the turnover increase because of the more difficulty with keeping staff around,” Stewart said. “Get a little bit more stressed to have a lot of inmates per person. But as we get our numbers up it becomes easier and always have to remind the new ones of that to help them stay.”

Officer Stewart also distributes food trays with the help of an inmate , and she’ll also cover rec time in a women’s cell block where Shyra Harvey is confined.

She says the lack of rec time can actually be unsafe for inmates.

“And I think if we do get full staff again, it would stop a lot of the fights that go on and the arguing and a lot of the chaos because what I mean when you're we know we're in jail, but that's one thing that we get to look forward to,” harvey said. “And that helps a lot of people out for not having attitudes and things like that.”

“Sometimes, like if a girl's really upset, yeah, they'll get to hitting on the walls and yelling and have attitude and then that affects someone else if they're sleeping and they wake up and get very upset and that can cause a fight.”

Exacerbating all of this is jail overcrowding. This can make it difficult to properly place prisoners who for a variety of reasons, like mental illness, should be separate from other inmates. It’s worse in the women’s area, which has fewer spots.

Assistant Jail Commander Lt. Guetling said some suffering from mental illness are kept near booking to have more officers nearby.

Nearby, a woman wails from inside her cell.

“The other things that we have in this area is you hear,” Guetling said. “We have a lot of maybe our more mental health I've been housed here people suffering from schizophrenia bipolar, maybe suicidal ideation.”

Wedding acknowledges there are challenges to the job.

“You come into a place where there's confinement, so you're kind of confined yourself, because you're inside a locked up institution,” he said. “You have people that don't want to be here, you have aggressive people, you have people with substance abuse, you have people with mental illness.”

He feels that the staffing crisis is part of the overall difficulty employers are having attracting and retaining new workers. Despite the challenges of the job he says it can be very rewarding.

“I tell people as you get hired as a jail officer, that's the beginning of a journey that only you will experience. Oftentimes, people think of the jail as not being a good place to work. But we have competitive wages, we have very nice benefit packages. And it's a real nice place to start your journey into law enforcement.”

Wedding said they have about 20 new officers starting in the fall, though retention is stil a problem.