GREENFIELD — From the outside, the Hancock County Jail looks like a quiet place.
Faces peer from tiny windows as people come and go from the adjoining sheriff’s department, and for most passersby, that’s as much contact with an inmate as they’ll ever have.
But there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to managing the facility’s residents, and officials say the effort has stretched resources dangerously thin.
The debate over manpower at the jail is not a new one. Hancock County Council members who control the purse strings say while the need for more staff might be there, the funding is not.
The issue has risen again with the release of the department’s annual jail report, which details the previous year’s jail operations and makes note of current needs. According to the 2013 report, which was recently provided to the council, scofflaws are being booked in at a faster rate than they’re being released, causing the jail’s population to swell despite the fact book-ins have leveled off in recent years.
There were 200 fewer releases from the jail in 2013 than in 2012, the report states, suggesting inmates are staying longer.
Jail Commander Capt. Andy Craig can’t pinpoint why, but he knows the effect it has on staff and inmates alike.
The jail’s bed capacity is 157. Tuesday, there were 172 inmates.
Jail staff members make adjustments as they can to ease the space concerns. Portable inmate cots are moved into common areas, and more people are assigned to each cell in the block.
But tensions run high among inmates who grow restless as their personal space dwindles.
“It seems to be more fights, more confrontations,” jail officer Missy Wilcher said. “You add people, but you don’t add space.”
In 2010, an independent consultant’s jail study recommended a pricey new facility aimed at relieving overcrowding, but there are no plans to move forward with the project, which county leaders say is cost-prohibitive.
Council President Bill Bolander criticized the study, which he said was unrealistic in its overly detailed expectations for the local jail.
“It was like they were getting paid by the word,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Mike Shepherd said he needs at least a dozen more staff members to properly oversee the growing inmate population.
At times, the facility is so short-staffed that jailers have to reach out to the administrative staff to take on tasks such as walking inmates to their court hearings at the county courthouse next door.
Shepherd said while he’s happy to lend a helping hand, he fears the county could be liable if something goes wrong.
“What if something does happen that’s a cause of being short-staffed?” he said. “If I know we need 12 more people, and we do nothing about it, and something happens, that falls on me then.”
In previous discussions about liability, the county attorney has noted that anyone could sue, regardless of whether the county leaves staffing as is or agrees to the $467,000 annual cost of adding 12 new jailers.
Craig said when it comes to manpower in the jail, some days are better than others.
It’s the “what if” that worries him.
Whether there is sufficient staff on hand depends on various factors that change daily and aren’t always predictable, Craig said.
Typically, six jailers are assigned to each day shift, and five jailers are assigned to each night shift. However, once administrators account for vacation time and the occasional sick leave, it’s not uncommon to start the day already one staff member short.
And while operations inside the jail are the staff’s primary focus, many tasks require jailers to leave the facility.
Every day, inmates must be accompanied to court hearings at the county courthouse. Even if an inmate goes before the judge remotely via video court inside the jail, a jailer must be present in the room with the inmate during the hearing and cannot attend to other matters during that time.
Should an inmate suffer a medical condition that cannot be treated in house, a hospital visit could pull yet another staff member, who is required to stay with the inmate during treatment, out of the building.
“Now, I have maybe one person or two persons on the entire floor for 150 inmates plus,” Craig said. “What happens if you have a fight or a fire?”
Craig said additional staff would also allow for more supervision throughout the jail, increasing facility security overall. For example, a crew of four inmate workers who assist in the kitchen are overseen only by the jail cook, who is unarmed.
Wilcher agreed that without additional jailers consistently available, it’s impossible to predict whether the staff will be prepared to meet the day’s challenges.
“Some days, what we have is sufficient, and other days, it’s really, really not,” she said.
An ongoing debate
The wrestling match between the sheriff and the county council over staffing concerns is one that has left the county’s chief law enforcement officer in the losing corner for two years running.
In 2012, the sheriff requested 13 new hires – six jailers, six deputies and one administrator – and was granted three, two jailers and a deputy.
Last year, Shepherd came before the council again, asking for 12 new jailers. The council balked at the request, and Shepherd was turned away with no new staff.
Not helping Shepherd’s case were figures suggesting the average jail population had actually been declining in recent years.
In 2012, the jail population hit a seven-year low with a daily average of 135 inmates housed in the facility, and that number stayed fairly consistent in 2013 with an average of 149.
But each inmate’s length of stay appears to be getting longer, Craig said, which could reverse the downward trend.
Bolander said the council has the difficult job of weighing each department’s wants and needs at the county budget hearings held each summer.
“It’s all one great big giant puzzle,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that would like their share.”
If Shepherd returns for a third time with a request for a dozen jailers, the council won’t be surprised.
Bolander said the council has done its best to work with the sheriff’s department, but 12 new hires is an unrealistic request.
He also described the need as “inflated.”
“We just can’t afford to do 12, and I think they know that, too,” he said. “… There’s no money to do that.”
Shepherd said while he doesn’t expect the council to acquiesce, he will continue to put the request in writing.
“We did our part. We notified you,” he said. “We knew going over there they would not give the stamp of approval, but give us a person or two a year. I think they can at least show they’re working on it.”