The Johnson County Jail may be experiencing staffing shortages now, but Sheriff Duane Burgess is optimistic about the future.
For the last few months, the sheriff’s office has been looking for both correctional officers and kitchen staff for the county jail. Johnson County is not alone with this problem, as it’s happening in departments across the United States.
As of Tuesday, progress has been made on the hiring front. The jail is now only short eight of its budgeted 80 correctional officers, and for kitchen cooks, they now have three of the four full-time civilian positions filled, Burgess said.
But this is not enough and more help is needed, officials say.
When Burgess first started at the sheriff’s office 38 years ago, deputies who were hired on often stayed at the sheriff’s office for their entire careers. This is not the case anymore, he said.
“It takes a unique person to work in the jail,” Burgess said. “It’s not for everybody.”
Once jail deputies make it through training and experience the jail atmosphere, they sometimes realize it’s not for them, Burgess said. Other times may transfer to another department, like Franklin or Greenwood police, after receiving a job offer, he said.
Along with police departments, the sheriff’s office also finds itself often competing with other Central Indiana jails. Major Matt Rhinehart, jail division commander, says the jail has essentially traded correctional officers with all of the counties surrounding Johnson County at some point, he said.
“Whether it’s they moved, or whether the pay is better or different … we lose people in that way too,” Rhinehart said.
The coronavirus pandemic also did not help. At one point, about three-quarters of jail tested positive for COVID-19, which can make people hesitant to work there, Burgess said.
“It’s a little hard to come to work knowing that you’ve got COVID (cell) blocks and you’ve got to take care of those folks, especially when it first started because people were dying,” he said.
But this is in the past, he said.
“We’re finally, I think, getting over that hump, but we’re no different than any other employer in Indiana,” Burgess said. “It’s difficult to find people right now that want to work, and our folks can’t work from home. We’ve got to physically be here.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, there were about 350 inmates incarcerated at the county jail. Corrections officers are responsible for every single one of them, and every inmate has different needs, Burgess said.
These needs include medical issues, which officers are constantly watching for. With 350 people in the facility, there’s no doubt they will come up, Rhinehart said.
“The staff has to monitor them,” Rhinehart said. “We’ve had staff members keep people alive via CPR for several minutes waiting for medical personnel to show up.”
Correctional officers are also responsible for maintaining jail security, watching over inmates, and ensuring they get medical treatment. They are also responsible for making sure inmates are fed and make it to court, Burgess and Rhinehart said.
“It’s a very demanding job. It’s a rewarding job,” Rhinehart said.
In the kitchen, the jail is budgeted for four full-time cooks, but they’ve only had two for the last several months, along with a couple of part-time workers. The staff is responsible for up to 1,200 meals a day for not only the jail but also community corrections, Burgess and Rhinehart said.
The position is titled cook, but in Rhinehart’s view, it’s a slight misnomer. Jail cooks are civilian employees who get certified to oversee food preparation to ensure it’s done correctly. They also supervise inmates assigned to the kitchen who help make the food, he said.
With only two-full time civilian cooks for the last several months, jail officers had to step in and assist with the supervision, Rhinehart said.
“They were overseeing those that were just so that our head cook could have a day off,” he said.
A third full-time cook was recently hired, which will help, but the fourth position remains open. They are also still hiring for part-time staff, Burgess and Rhinehart said.
The deputies are working as hard as they can, but when they are short-staffed, they end up taking more responsibility. Sometimes they are working through lunch breaks, and the amount of work continually wears people out, leading to higher turnover, Burgess and Rhinehart said.
“We have to maintain a working staff limit every day,” Rhinehart said. “No matter what it’s like outside, no matter what holiday it might be, or no matter what’s going on in the world, there are people here that are are taken care of a facility with between 350 and 400 inmates.”
The shortages also come with a financial cost. Burgess had to re-appropriate unused salaries from the open positions last year to pay for overtime for not only jail staff, but also road deputies. Both groups have been working large amounts of overtime over the last year, he said.
“Manpower is a huge issue and it’s a must,” Burgess said. “We must have shifts covered. We must meet our operating standards of employees being on duty.”
The lack of applicants for jail positions has caused Burgess to make “creative marketing moves,” including putting up signs.
The sheriff’s office has put up several signs promoting the positions near roadways across Johnson County, including along U.S. 31 near Franklin. This move has been successful, Burgess said.
Current employees promoting the positions through word of mouth has also been beneficial, he said.
“I think the numbers are increasing (from the signs), but word of mouth is really the best,” Burgess said. “… Word of mouth is probably the best that we get right now.”
The sheriff’s office has also promoted the positions on Facebook and online job recruiting sites like Indeed, but the postings haven’t gained the right traction.
For future marketing efforts, Burgess plans to do local radio ads to get the word out. However, he has to be strategic as all these efforts require funds to do so, he said.
While things are difficult now, Burgess believes the situation is getting better. He hopes to hire more staff without taking them away from other departments, he said.
HOW TO APPLY
The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office is hiring correctional officers and kitchen staff. Here is some quick information about pay and how to apply.
- Correctional Officer: $45,196 salary
- Kitchen Staff: $40,000 salary
- Part-time Kitchen Help: Up to $20 an hour depending on experience
To apply: Go to johnsoncountysheriff.com/employment/
Source: Sheriff Duane Burgess