Ohio jail grapples with staffing shortage
Nearly 50 corrections officers resigned in the last two-plus years and another eight were dismissed
Dayton Daily News, Ohio
MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Ohio — The Montgomery County Jail faces a staffing shortage after nearly 50 corrections officers resigned in the last two-plus years and another eight were dismissed during or just after probationary periods, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.
Sheriff’s office veterans say the job is fraught with pitfalls and temptations for salaries that start around $16 per hour.
“It takes a special person to work in there,” said Cheryl Matlock, an 18-year Montgomery County Jail corrections officer, commonly called a CO. “The mentally ill — they throw feces, they throw urine, they are violent at times. So (new COs) come in and they’re like, ‘This isn’t for me. I can’t do that.’”
The resignations have led to a staffing shortage — routinely at least 10 positions shy of the funded 127 spots in a jail has faced 15 lawsuits regarding care and conditions in recent years.
The shortage means overtime for less experienced employees and more training shifts.
“It’s terrible,” said Scott Peffly, a 26-year CO, all in Montgomery County. “It’s harder now because the turnover is greater than probably normal.”
Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office jail Major Jeremy Roy shows fresh-faced corrections officers a slide show during orientation that includes a photo of a CO posing on his first day.
“They’re there in their shirt and tie, and they’re getting their picture taken, and they’re smiling and they are in front of that flag … I’m showing them that picture of that CO,” Roy said. “And then I’m also sliding over to the next picture, which is their book-in (jail) picture.”
One picture could be of Michael Rose Jr., a former Montgomery County Jail CO who in 2017 was sentenced to six months in federal prison for providing cell phones to inmates.
Future orientations could feature photos of Franco Villella, a CO facing sex crime charges against two female inmates. Villella’s criminal case is pending.
Byron Johnson was caught smuggling tobacco and selling packs to inmates for $100 apiece.
“This guy was just as excited as you were that he was getting this job, that he was going to be making good money, that he was going to be providing for his family, and this is what happened to him because he made the wrong decisions,” Roy said he tells the new COs. “When they see the picture of that kid in the same position they were in and then just months later, here’s their book-in picture, it seems like it hits home a little more.”
COs dismissed during probationary period
The Dayton Daily News reviewed dozens of documents, including staffing orders, personnel records and performance reviews in examining corrections officer turnover.
Those records show the other six COs were let go for varying reasons. One wouldn’t stop watching shows or otherwise being on his cell phone. That CO was an Army veteran with good references.
Another CO released didn’t want to report for OT as ordered and then called in sick. The CO, who had worked for a local security agency, also failed to secure an outer cell door.
One CO was arrested for drunk driving and released. On his application, obtained through public records requests, he checked boxes that he operated a motor vehicle while intoxicated and stole as an adult.
Another CO’s release was from her “inability to consistently show up” for her assigned watch, including three absences in her first 2½ weeks.
One CO was let go because he was denied in his request to show up late for his assigned duty and training (for important business) and later said he was taking an entry level exam to work at another facility.
Another CO did not properly notify supervisors of why he didn’t show up for his shift and didn’t call or return messages. That CO also took a key that prevented officers from securing an inmate into his cell.
Eleven others have left because of termination, retirement or medical, voluntary or involuntary disability. Two more have been suspended for violations.
Corrections officers are below deputies in the sheriff’s office pecking order. Some COs strive to be promoted to deputies and work while they study criminal justice or attend a police academy.
Have to know ‘right and wrong’
“You know, 99 percent of the COs are doing what they do,” Montgomery County Sheriff Rob Streck said. “They work hard every day, and then you get the one or two every couple years that you have an issue with.
“We had a couple incidents where we had some COs make some very bad mistakes, so we now make sure they sign off on the polices that say you can’t do this, you can’t do that.”
Peffly said the candidate pool has changed and young COs are adjusting to a work environment.
“Most of the time, not trying to belittle them, but it’s their first job they’ve ever had, so they’ve never been in the work force, they don’t know how stuff is structured,” Peffly said. “They come in and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to talk to people?’ “
“Everybody knows you can’t have sexual relations with an inmate no matter what the circumstances are. There’s no manual that the sheriff gives us that says you can’t, but you just have to know what’s right and what’s wrong.”
‘A lot more good things’
The COs got free hamburgers and hot dogs May 8 as part of National Corrections Officers Week.
“It’s a stressful job,” said Peffly, who said there are more people with more mental health and substance abuse issues than when he started, “but it’s also rewarding at the same time.”
Matlock said a positive attitude is key, and she likes seeing ex-inmates around town who say they’ve gotten their life together.
Jail officials said the lawsuits against employees alleging abuse or neglect are just one part of the picture.
“We do a lot of good things for the inmates,” Matlock said. “We make sure ones that don’t have housing, we try to get them housing. We put them in programs. We work with them every day so we get to know them.
“I think there’s a lot more good things, and you only hear the bad things, and it’s so few compared to the good things we do.”
Good days, and bad
Matlock said dealing with the population is challenging.
“We have a lot of mentally ill (people) in the jail and it takes a lot out of you because we don’t have that extensive training with the mentally ill, but since we’ve been there longer, we know how to handle them,” she said. “So, for others who are just beginning, it’s a little rough for them because they don’t have that background.
“And with the new drugs out on the streets, the way they come in all hyped up and that, it’s hard for them to see that.”
Peffly said he feels for mentally ill inmates because the resources in the jail are not the best to help break the cycle of incarceration.
“The more mental health facilities you lose, the more people you have that come in through our doors that are really … really need help, and we’re just the jail,” he said. “We can offer them this and that, but unless they get diagnosed and people help them, they’re just going to back out on the streets and get worse.”
Downing of the duck
New COs also are subject to what Roy called downing of the duck in which inmates size up new corrections officers.
“They’re figuring out can they game you or they cannot game you, what can they get out of you,” Roy said.
“At 18 or 19 years old, would we have been able to go into a cell full of 30-, 40-, 50-year-old men and tell them, ‘You’re going to do this and this is why you’ve got to do this, this is the rules, blah, blah, blah.’ “
New COs are mentored, but jail leadership said training clicks with some and not others.
“The younger ones are naive,” Matlock said. “We have to take them under our wing and say, ‘OK, this is what you shouldn’t do. Don’t let them, you know, get under your skin because they will.’”
Whether it’s cigarettes, sex or cell phones, COs have landed in trouble for being worked by inmates, Peffly said.
“These inmates have 24 hours in a day to think what they’re going to ask you, how can they manipulate you in ways that the new person might not see coming,” he said.
Limiting problems, limiting litigation
Streck said he tells new COs to be professional, stern and fair, but not to get personal. On the other end have been problems with allegations of not caring enough. The jail-related lawsuits in the past few years have ranged from allegations of medical neglect or excessive use of force, but Roy said proper staffing and training will help.
“We’re not going to get away from lawsuits (entirely),” Roy said, adding that proposed renovations and/or expansion of the jail should help. “Force is not good. Force isn’t pretty no matter how justified it ever is, it just won’t be.
“But the issue is are we doing everything we can with the facility we have, the people we have to make it better? Whether it’s training, whether it’s making a wing just for mental health.”
The sheriff said unlike 10 or 15 years ago, some new COs don’t see it as a career.
“I want everybody to be as proud to work here as I am,” Streck said. “And somehow that kind of went away a little bit to where it became just a job.”
Making a hiring push
Streck said his office will soon roll out a hiring effort based on tracking where people find out about the jobs and from where the best candidates come from.
“If you don’t have a heart for this work, then you’re not going to do it right,” he said.
Roy said that despite the staffing shortage and hiring issues, the Montgomery County Jail will continue to try to get the best people in the right spots for what is a challenging job. He said all COs will be evaluated and held to account.
“We’re not going to lower our standards because then you’re going to have all kinds of problems over there,” Roy said. “But at the same time, if you’re here and you’re still not doing what you’re supposed to do, we don’t want you here either.”
©2019 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)