Overworked guards pose threat to detention center security, council is told

November 15, 1992|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff Writer

They spend most of their working hours standing, watching over an ever-growing jail population that now numbers nearly 300 inmates.

And often, the correctional officers at the Harford County Detention Center work 16-hour shifts -- two or three times a week.

That practice -- a result of a staff shortage -- troubles jail officials and the county executive, who wants to add seven correctional officers.

Major Dale Zepp, who oversees the jail, told the County Council last Tuesday that the Sheriff's Office now spends about $100,000 in overtime to keep the jail adequately staffed.

Adding seven guards would cost about $210,000, based on a starting salary of about $30,000, including benefits.

"But security issues override the cost," Major Zepp said. "The officers who work double shifts are tired."

Major Zepp and John O'Neill, Harford's procurement director and chairman of the executive's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, studied the inmate-guard ratio this year.

In the past two years, the jail population has risen about 41 percent, from 211 to 297, Mr. O'Neill said.

But Major Zepp said that during that time, the number of Detention Center employees primarily assigned to security duty has remained at 40.

The other 35 employees at the Detention Center are trained for emergencies and can be assigned to work security detail in such an event, but they usually have administrative duties, Major Zepp said.

The guards are prohibited from working more than 16 hours in a 24-hour period. But Deputy First Class Michael R. Capasso, who books inmates when they arrive at the jail, said many correctional officers work overtime.

Occasionally, the overtime is required to finish an assignment. But more frequently, he said, the overtime is needed to ensure the jail is staffed at the optimum level for security reasons.

Working overtime is always voluntary, said Deputy Capasso, "but a person realizes a fellow officer will be working that much harder if they're one person short on a shift."

"If you decide to work a double shift, about two-thirds of the way through the 16-hour shift, depending on your personal stamina, you begin to drag," Deputy Capasso said. "This is a job where you're on your feet 90 percent of the time, and you have to be alert 100 percent of the time. It's not a situation where you can let your guard down."

Deputy Capasso said it's typical to see correctional officers work two or three double shifts in a row to make sure the jail is properly staffed.

The deputy is a member of the Maryland Classified Employees Association Local 611, which brought the matter to County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's attention.

"If we had more people working, overtime wouldn't be eliminated, but the load would be lightened," he said.

County Council members got a briefing on the situation last Tuesday night, but it confused some of them, who thought it was a request to approve the new hires. It's up to Mrs. Rehrmann to include enough money in her budget proposal each year to justify new jobs, Mr. O'Neill said.

Councilwoman Susan B. Heselton, R-District B, complained that the briefing included no mention of the cost of the seven new guards until she asked. "Here you are trying to justify seven new positions, and . . . you certainly haven't given us a bottom line," she said.

"We need to do this for safety and security," Major Zepp responded.

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