Until the staffing shortage at the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center is resolved, inefficiencies in daily operations will continue to pose an increased risk of future lawsuits, according to multiple independent audits.
Sheriff Robert Arnold meets with inmates during a surprise visit Sept. 12, 2012, inside one of the pods at the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (TMP Photo/M. Kemph)
Citing concerns over guard and inmate safety, several auditors have determined the staffing shortage, combined with the ever-growing daily workload, has led to improper classifications of offenders and little direct interaction with inmates – all of which is a recipe for disaster.
“I strongly suggest that the staffing inadequacies be prioritized,” said Fran Zandi, technical assistance manager with the National Institute of Corrections, an agency with the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Without proper staffing levels, I am convinced the Rutherford County jail and its staff will struggle with inmates who are inappropriately classified and housed,” she said. “Ultimately, the grievances, fights and assaults will continue until proper identification and separations can be made.”
In 2011, staff recorded 89 fights occurred inside housing units, of which 25 involved an inmate assaulting a fellow prisoner.
As such, Zandi said, “the potential for litigation, serious injury and property destruction should be of great concern” to Rutherford County government officials.
“Although the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office would like to be progressive in the supervision of the inmate population by directly supervising inmates, there are many operation, classification and staffing issues that must be considered first,” she said.
The analysis is just one of the recent reports Sheriff Robert Arnold has submitted for review to Mayor Ernest Burgess and the Rutherford County Commission.
The comments reveal what some state auditors have described as a worsening situation that needs to be fixed as soon as possible.
An inspection conducted by the Tennessee Corrections Institute determined the staffing shortage has negatively impacted jail safety, concluding the likelihood of lawsuits against Rutherford County continues to grow.
As the problem continues to worsen, the liability on the County Commission “may be increasing,” according to the report.
“This is an important issue for Rutherford County because we are required to follow federal and state laws, which means having the resources to keep people safe inside the jail,” Arnold said, during a recent interview.
“Do I like having to inform the County Commission that more money is needed?” he said. “No, not at all. But it is my job to make sure we are following the law.”
At least 40 additional full-time employees are needed to efficiently manage daily operations and adequately oversee inmates, 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.
Based on current salary levels, the Sheriff’s Office would need more than $1.25 million annually to pay for the recommended 44 full-time positions.
“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.”
Because there are a myriad of activities that require detention officers to serve multiple functions not directly associated with overseeing inmates in housing units, he said supervision has decreased.
“We noted that due to insufficient staffing, several of the tower posts are routinely unmanned,” Hart said, adding hourly checks on cells are not consistently being performed.
“Tower officers have empowered the trustees to correct deficiencies in a housing unit,” Hart said, noting jail trustees are used as a goffer between guards and other inmates.
Subsequently, there is less interaction between detention officers and inmates, which has led to jail trustees having too much authoritative power over other prisoners inside a housing unit, Hart said.
“I would strongly suggest exploring other options to assist in minimizing this frustration and to take control of the housing units – not empowering the trustees,” he said.
During a tour of the jail, several trustees said they also felt like having more detention officers directly oversee inmates would improve the overall climate inside housing units.
“It would be helpful to have a guard patrolling the floor,” said Eric Emmons, a jail trustee, who is originally from Union County, Tenn. “I like having responsibilities, but there are times when it becomes very difficult to balance my job with inmate politics.”
Having a detention officer inside the housing unit on a regular basis would also help to prevent flare-ups between inmates, he said.
“Being able to talk to a guard face-to-face – even for just a minute – helps morale,” Emmons said. “A lot of things would get better in here if there was more communication and interaction with us.”