Consultants express staffing, overcrowding concerns about Montgomery County Jail

Independent consultants described serious staffing problems at the Montgomery County Jail to an advisory group Tuesday.

Brad Sassatelli and George Vose, consultants from CGL Companies, based their findings on interviews with staff, a tour of the facilities and jail records. The Montgomery County Jail Justice Advisory Committee, which was formed in March 2017 in response to several civil rights lawsuits, hired the consultants to find ways to prevent future mistreatment claims.

At the same time that funding and staffing at the jail have decreased, populations have increased, members of the committee said. The jail now operates at a higher capacity than it was built to house. Pods designed to house 48 inmates now house 104. Areas designated for activities have been converted to housing, the consultants said.

The layout of the jail makes it difficult for officers to properly supervise the inmates, Sassatelli and Vose said in their presentation. The jail is made up of “a maze of walkthroughs” with narrow hallways and sudden turns where inmates could surprise officers.

“It’s one of the few areas I’ve been in, out of hundreds of jails and prisons I’ve been in over the years, where I felt unsafe,” Sassatelli said.

RELATED: Justice in the Jailhouse: Lawsuits, accusations plague county jails in the region.

Some cells are arranged in a linear format, limiting the visibility of inmates to officers. Only one officer supervises each floor of inmates, and each floor houses 80 to 90 inmates.

“Think about that,” Vose said. “That’s 80 to 90 inmates that you can’t see.”

Another concern was the location of the mental health cells. Inmates on suicide watch are housed in the booking area, so already-busy booking officers must check the inmates every 10 minutes.

Turnover rate of employees at the jail is 30 percent per year, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Rob Streck said. The sheriff’s department is struggling to recruit correctional officers to fill positions. Years ago, 100 people would show up to take the exam required for the position, Streck said. Now the department might see four applicants.

An average corrections officer is working overtime every two to three days, Sassatelli said. Streck said overtime hours are assigned according to seniority, so the bulk of the jail’s overtime hours are worked by the youngest officers. That overwhelms new employees, leading to turnover. In employee interviews, overtime was the “number one concern” for younger officers.

RELATED: County jail deaths add sense of urgency to advisory group’s review

“That’s kind of unusual from my standpoint,” Sassatelli said “Usually the younger guys are the ones that want the overtime, but here they’re worn out by it already. It’s taking a significant toll.”

In the event of an emergency, the jail can work an officer up to eight hours beyond the scheduled end of shift. Officers must work overtime if ordered to and can be disciplined if they don’t, Major Matt Haines said.

Staffing is low enough that housing units are sometimes locked down for short periods of time because officers aren’t available to supervise the inmates. In order for the officer supervising a unit to use the bathroom, the officer must sometimes lock down the unit and leave.

The consultants said the jail doesn’t staff enough supervisors for the number of inmates and officers. The 900-bed facility often has a single sergeant on duty.

Several jail locations are monitored only by security cameras. Officers are not posted at the medical unit where healthcare contractors treat inmates. Some female staffers are concerned that they are alone with inmates in the same area as safety hazards such as dental tools, Sassatelli said.

RELATED: Montgomery County to spend $100K to study jail operations after lawsuits

Officers also do not supervise the loading dock, the laundry room or the kitchen in person, the consultants said. Contraband could be passed through those locations.

Vose and Sassetteli recommended several staffing increases, including the addition of more command staff and booking staff and adding posts to supervise the medical unit, loading dock and other areas.

It’s not clear whether the jail can find funding for the additional staffing. Streck said the jail already has seven unfunded positions.

Yvonne Curington, a member of the League of Women Voters who has been attending the advisory committee’s meetings for months, said the presentation by the consultants was “heartening” but criticized the pace of the committee’s work. She noted that it took the committee three months to decide to hire the consultants.

“People’s rights are being violated,” she said. “This group has moved awfully slow.”

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