Sheriff Robert Arnold speaks with inmates Sept. 12, 2012, during a tour of the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (TMP Photo/M. Kemph)
In order to reach an adequate number of staff to manage daily operations and safely oversee inmates, the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center needs more than 40 full-time employees, according to a recent independent audit.
At least 39 detention officers and five corporals are needed, according to a jail staffing analysis conducted by officials with the County Technical Assistance Service, an arm of the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service.
State auditors also recommended adding one more lieutenant and reducing the number of sergeants from 10 to nine, either through promotion or downsizing.
“We identified many forces that shape staffing needs, and many changes that have occurred in recent years,” said Jim Hart, a jail management consultant with the County Technical Assistance Service. “Current staffing patterns are insufficient to meet all the demands that corrections staff are faced with.”
The state analysis is just one of the reports Sheriff Robert Arnold recently submitted for review to the Rutherford County Public Safety Committee.
Other audits have determined the same thing – the jail needs more staff.
“It was clear to me while on site that staffing is not an acceptable level to safely and securely manage and supervise the 950 inmates,” said Fran Zandi, technical assistance manager with the National Institute of Corrections, an agency with the U.S. Department of Justice.
In the review released in July, Zandi described the jail as being “grossly understaffed” and strongly recommended Rutherford County government officials seriously consider the recent state audit detailing the shortage.
As part of the state analysis, Hart said the increase in inmates at the Rutherford County jail has risen steadily, noting it is the primary factor contributing to the need for more staff.
For example, the average daily inmate population between 2010 and 2011 has grown by more than 11 percent, he said.
“We also discussed (with jail administrators) some challenges with the volume of activities occurring throughout the day and how they seem to stretch staff members thin,” Hart said, adding the staff should be commended for trying to keep up with all of the demands on a daily basis.
Among the list of negative consequences associated with the staffing shortage, state auditors determined the sharp jump in the amount of money spent on overtime pay is draining funds needed for other operating costs.
“When employees are off work on earned (vacation) time, sick, or attending training, shifts operate short or call other shift members in on overtime or compensatory time,” Hart said, adding jail administrators are constantly juggling staff to cover shortages through overtime pay.
“This becomes a vicious cycle in that employees are taking time off because of potential stress and burnout,” he said, “but in turn are working overtime to cover shortages and other employees who take time off.”
In addition, state auditors believe the lack of available detention officers has also created safety concerns because there are not enough guards manning the towers on each floor.
“We noted that due to insufficient staffing, several of the tower posts are routinely unmanned,” Hart said, adding a third detention officer for each section of the jail, known as a pod, would help resolve this matter.
To address those issues, as well as others mentioned in the report, the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office would need more than $1.25 million annually to pay for the 44 full-time positions.
Given the fact that members of the Rutherford County Commission and Mayor Ernest Burgess have already expressed concern over the cost of recent building upgrades and repairs, it is unlikely that any of the additional positions would be considered this fiscal year.
During a Public Safety Committee meeting held in August, Burgess appeared frustrated with Arnold after learning the water heater needed to be replaced.
“I think we need to find a way to be as prudent as possible with the budget,” Burgess said. “This level of spending puts us in a position of possibly having to raise taxes to pay for next year’s budget."
Even if a tax increase is avoided, Burgess said other important projects might have to be put on hold to pay for any more jail expenditures.
“I understand living within our budget, but this building is falling apart,” Arnold said during the Aug. 27 meeting. “This building has not had maintenance for 10 years. … I have warned the County Commission about these problems for a while.”
With the tension over spending, Arnold acknowledged the timing is not ideal but emphasized these findings point to the possibility of future liabilities, or worse litigation.
“It is my job to inform the County Commission of problems that affect our day-to-day operations, which I have already done,” Arnold said Wednesday during an interview.
“All of this falls back on the County Commission to appropriate enough resources to do our job properly under federal and state laws,” Arnold said. “This jail has never been properly staffed.”
It all goes back to funding either education or jails, he said.
“The schools have always been given priority over the jail,” Arnold said, “but at some point, these problems must be fixed.”