Montgomery County Sheriff's Office Seeks Recruits Amid Corrections Officer Shortage
The Montgomery County Jail has been embroiled in numerous lawsuits and allegations of inmate mistreatment in recent years. And, a recent independent investigation into conditions at the jail by the Montgomery County Commission’s Justice Committee reveals a chronic shortage of corrections officers contributes to some of the jail’s most deeply entrenched problems.
The solution may seem obvious: hire more corrections officers to boost staffing at the detention facility.
But some jail officials say it’s not that simple.
If the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office could design the perfect corrections officer job candidate, he or she would probably be a lot like Andrew Rhoades.
Rhoades is an easygoing Miami Valley native who’s been on the job at the county jail for about a year.
He’s got a big smile and is quick to laugh, but it's clear he takes his job seriously.
"I guess I get the most out of helping the inmates,” says Rhoades. “They're at their lowest point. And we're there to take care of them and to give them what they need. And a lot of times where we're the only people they have at that moment – it's very rewarding."
Rhoades says he spent much of his life dreaming of becoming a police officer. He finally made the switch to corrections after a decade working in an unrelated field and says he hopes this is the beginning of a long career in law enforcement.
Recently appointed Sheriff Rob Streck wants to recruit more people like Rhoades, but it’s hard to find them.
The Justice Committee report recommends hiring more than 50 new corrections officers at the jail. But, the sheriff says he struggles to fill existing vacant positions as it is. Streck says it’s particularly difficult to recruit candidates of color -- 80 percent of the jail’s current staff is white, although nearly 40 percent of the inmate population is black.
“The county commission could turn around tomorrow and say, OK, we're going to allot you this much money to add this many more bodies and I'm already short now,” Streck says. “So how do we go about filling those positions? It keeps me up at night.”
Jail understaffing can lead to safety issues, the report finds.
With fewer people keeping eyes on inmates, violence, health problems and other critical issues could go unnoticed. Jail overcrowding compounds the problem.
The Justice Committee report also finds understaffing leads to forced overtime, decreasing employee morale and leading to turnover.
Sheriff Streck says a strong economy means fewer people are looking for jobs across the board. The drug epidemic has also hampered recruitment efforts.
"Obviously to have this job we need somebody with a nice clean background,” Streck says. “Drug use in the past is a huge issue for us. We're not going to lower our standards just because we're short on people."
Streck also says corrections has an image problem – not many people want to work in a jail.
It’s a problem nationwide, says Carlyle Holder, who worked in management for Federal Bureau of Prisons for nearly 30 years, and is now a consultant.
“Corrections is always a difficult sell because of the nature of the job,” says Holder. “It's confined. It's not as glorious as being a police officer or sheriff.”
Holder says the career isn’t for everyone. Corrections officers must be extremely disciplined and able to communicate well with inmates. The job also requires long hours.
Officer Rhoades, who is a father of twin toddlers, says that has been the hardest part of the job for him.
“I spend a lot of time at the jail and I miss out on some stuff,” says Rhoades. “We spend Christmases with the inmates, weekends, nights, away from our families.”
Rhodes would eventually like to join the police force, he says.
It's a sentiment echoed by many other officers. The job is often a stepping stone to other, more highly paid careers in law enforcement.
And, it’s one reason the turnover rate among jail corrections officers is so high. In Montgomery County, that rate is 28 percent.
So, what can be done to attract new corrections officers and keep them on the job?
Carlyle Holder says, while there’s no easy answer, sheriff’s departments around the country could do a better job of reaching out to potential applicants at universities and veteran events.
He also says jail leaders should conduct exit interviews to find out why corrections officers choose to leave jail jobs.
"I think we we are facing a challenge in terms of getting young people to understand the value of a career in corrections and the social impact that they can make in transforming lives,” Holder says.
Montgomery County Sheriff Rob Streck says the department is planning to launch a new jail recruitment initiative in the coming months.