Graham Kilmer
MKE County

County Jail is Bleeding Safety Officers

Pay low, conditions bad. In 2018 county hired 103 corrections officers and lost 110.

By - Jun 17th, 2019 11:25 am
Milwaukee County Jail and Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee County Jail and Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee County faces a crisis with its corrections officers.

The county jail has been losing corrections officers faster than it can hire them. In 2018 the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office hired 103 new corrections officers and lost 110 corrections officers. Jail command and the administration say they need to pay the corrections officers more to stem the flow of trained officers and are asking the county board to approve a pay raise for corrections officers, painting a picture of a badly overworked and underpaid workforce.

In the 2019 budget there is $500,000 for pay increases for corrections officers. The Human Resources Department supplied its report on how it will spend the money to retain staff. It is asking the board to approve is a 4.5 percent pay increase on top of the already scheduled 2 percent increase for 2019, to help retain the county’s correctional officers.

Because of uncompetitive pay, and tough work conditions, the county is losing corrections officers to other counties, and other professions.

Following a question from Sup. Supreme Moore Omokunde about how much Waukesha County pays corrections officers, Inspector Aaron Dobson, jail commander, said Milwaukee County pays approximately $4 an hour less than Waukesha does. With the proposed pay increase, corrections officers will make around $19 an hour. But this means Waukesha will still pay their starting employees more.

Dean Legler, director of compensation for the county Department of Human Resources, said the “very robust economy,” and low unemployment rate has created a job market with entry level jobs that pay as well, or better than the county pays corrections officers.

This, coupled with the challenging working conditions in a jail, make it hard for Milwaukee County to retain these employees. And this has very serious “physical” impacts on the county and the corrections facilities, Dobson said.

Many corrections officers are working three to four extra shifts a week, pulling 60 hour work weeks. “We fill all the positions daily,” Dobson said. “However, to do that we have to force our employees to work overtime.”

The jail had 54,000 hours of overtime, most of it forced. And when they can’t find a corrections officer to fill a time slot, they bring in deputies from the courthouse, who have an hourly pay of $34 an hour. And this puts a strain on courthouse operations, Dobson said. And the constant turnover of officers is an added financial burden, as it costs thousands of dollars to train a corrections officer.

The Sheriff’s Office was budgeted for 263 corrections officers in 2019. Right now, they have less than 200. Dobson said many of these employees are seeing a strain on their home-lives because they spend so much time working.

“It’s a very dangerous place for these officers to work,” Dobson said.

The jail has 960 inmates, of which more than 450 of have a mental health diagnosis, including more than 270 that are prescribed psychotropic drugs, which are used to regulate emotional and behavioral states. Naturally some of the jail’s inmates face “serious felony charges”, as Dobson put it. And a number of the inmates have serious health conditions.

“It can be challenging when you’re there for 12 to 16 hours a day to maintain that focus that you need to not only stay safe but to keep others safe,” Dobson said.

The jail has an underpaid, overworked workforce. This worried the supervisors on the committee, like Omokunde, who asked whether these work conditions could “exacerbate” already tense and dangerous situations, noting the deaths that have occurred within the jail in recent years. In 2016, three people died in the Milwaukee county jail: Terrill Thomas, Michael Madden and Kristina Fiebrink. The families of these individuals have all filed suit against the county. The county recently settled with the estate of Terrill Thomas for $5.1 million.

Dobson responded carefully to Omokunde’s question: “I think we do the best job we can with the resources we have,” he said, “but I think we all know we can do a better job.”

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