A mass exodus of Fayette County Detention Center officers has created an unsafe environment for staff and inmates at the Old Frankfort Pike facility, union officials said this week.
The detention center is authorized to have 278 officers but is currently nearly 100 officers short.
Since January, 86 officers have quit or left.
An additional 20 officers are currently on medical leave or modified duty due to medical issues and can't staff units, said Michael Harris, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Town Branch Lodge 83, the union that represents jail officers.
The city says some of those 86 officers retired. Several left to take positions with law enforcement or the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Eleven were fired. Twenty-six left for other job opportunities. Others left for different reasons, including for family or medical issues.
Fewer jail officers are responsible for an average of 1,000 inmates, Harris said. Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for the city, said the jail had 960 inmates as of Nov. 1.
With the drop in staffing, there is a similar drop in morale, Harris said.
A recent survey, in which 54 percent of jail employees participated, showed:
- 90 percent viewed employee morale as below average or poor.
- 60 percent had looked for other employment in the past 12 months.
- 50 percent thought it was likely or somewhat likely they would leave within the year.
"When only 10% of your critical workforce feels good about going to work, this should flash 'red alert' to every public safety agency," Harris wrote in a recent letter to the editor.
Recruitment efforts to increase staffing have failed, he said.
At a recent job fair, the department only received one application. Meanwhile, five people resigned the same week. Nearly half of all recruits leave within 18 months, union officials said.
Nine recruits started this week. But it will take up to eight weeks for those recruits to complete all levels of training, Harris said.
"We are training people eight or nine at a time," he said. "But on the other end, we are hemorrhaging people real quick."
To deal with a lack of staff, the jail has installed security cameras in its housing units that typically hold between 90 to 100 inmates. The jail has shut down some housing units in response to the low staffing ratios. There is typically only one guard in the unit. In prior years, there were two staff members per housing unit, Harris said.
Mandatory overtime, which requires officers to work double shifts, is now the norm. Shift commanders scramble at the start of every shift to figure out how to move personnel, so all housing units are covered, he said.
"The cameras only record the violence but do little to prevent or stop it as it happens. Our members fear and expect more instances of violent encounters, often resulting in life-changing injuries, " he said.
One day last week, staff took away three homemade shanks, Harris said.
If something isn't done soon, the city may be forced to take dramatic steps, union officials warn.
"We are near the breaking point where the only alternative will be calling in the (Kentucky) National Guard or asking the courts to release hundreds of violent criminals into the community," Harris said. "The jail is currently not a safe place to work. It is not a safe place for inmates to reside. We need city leaders to pay attention now before the problems are too far gone to fix."
Straub said the city is working to address the union's concerns and working to up recruitment efforts.
"Safety concerns of any type are taken very seriously," Straub said. "We try to work with the union to address such matters as quickly and efficiently as possible. The safety of the staff and the residents housed in the facility receives our full attention."
Straub said the city is facing the same labor crunch as private employers.
" Lexington is facing challenges in staffing just like cities all over the country," Straub said. "We have been aggressive in recruiting new employees. Over the last year, corrections has been actively pursuing new employees via the use of social media, traditional media, referrals, and numerous job/career fairs."
In March 2020, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the Fayette County Detention Center, working with judges and prosecutors, allowed some nonviolent offenders to either finish some sentences early or move to home incarceration in an attempt to thwart the spread of the coronavirus and decrease the detention center population.
However, the number of inmates has since started to inch back up.
Prisons, jails face similar staffing shortages
Louisville Metro Corrections has had similar staffing problems during the coronavirus pandemic. In September, there were two officers for every 480 inmates, Louisville correction officials said. The jail currently has 136 open positions, union officials told WAVE 3 news in Louisville.
Federal prisons are also facing worker shortages, according to a recent Associated Press and Marshal Project report. Low pay, grueling work and increased possibility of exposure to the coronavirus are fueling the mass resignation of correction officers.
Fayette County jail staffing has been a long-standing and cyclical problem.
In 2018, corrections officers pleaded with the city to do more to alleviate staff burnout as more officers left, leading to multiple overtime shifts. The city moved dozens of inmates eligible to serve their sentences to state prison, shifted administrators into front-line positions and tried to increase recruitment efforts.
In 2015, the city agreed to address officer shortages by increasing starting pay from $12 an hour to $15 once someone is hired full-time and completes the probationary stage. That helped for a while until the city saw an uptick in resignations again in 2018.
The city and the union are currently in negotiations for a new contract. The current contract expired two years ago, Harris said.
Boosting starting pay and raising salaries across the board will help retain employees, the union said. The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council recently upped the minimum wage for civil service employees and agreed to a 6 percent pay increase. Those pay increases do not affect jail employees because they are covered under a separate collective bargaining contract, city officials said.
However, the city has also agreed to set aside $15 million in American Rescue Plan Act money for $5,000 bonuses for all sworn public safety employees, including correction officers, Straub said.
"The real big competition is from fast-food restaurants," Harris said. Some are starting employees at $16 an hour, higher than the department of corrections. Moreover, those jobs are easier and don't have the grueling training requirements, he said.
$50,000 for a study that never happened
In 2019, the city proposed spending $50,000 for a study to determine how to better run the facility.
That study has yet to be completed.
The coronavirus pandemic stymied that analysis. The consultants who were hired to do the study could not travel to Lexington to do interviews and an overall assessment of jail operations, Straub said.
"The National Institute of Corrections, NIC, was scheduled to complete an assessment of the facility's policy and procedures and discipline in 2019, however, when the pandemic hit in 2020, a federal (employee) travel ban was put in place," Straub said.
The union said another study is not needed.
"Anyone can run a jail," Harris said. "But not everyone knows how to manage people. And that's been the long-standing problem at the jail."
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