Staffing levels at Washington County Jail 'critically low'
Members of the Washington County Police Officer's Association say the staffing levels at the Washington County Jail in Hillsboro are "critically low."
Deputies at the Washington County Jail are stretched thin, and an attorney for the WCPOA says this is leading to safety concerns for the deputies, the inmates and, by extension, the public.
"We're super fatigued right now from overtime, from having to do multiple positions — assignments and jobs that were filled previously as (recently) as three years ago by multiple people," said Mark Makler, attorney for the WCPOA. "As a result, that fatigue causes, unfortunately, inattention."
Makler says the negotiating arm of the county's deputies is deadlocked with the county over how to address these issues, and the bottom line is these staffing shortages don't help the equation of being able to save or protect lives.
"Staffing is at critical levels," Makler said. "What that means is people are far, far in excess of 40 hours of work in a high stress, high attention to detail, high risk job. And the more hours they're putting in, the more they're becoming ineffective.
"Not only are they dangerous to themselves, but they're dangerous to their co-workers … and they're dangerous to the people (they supervise), because they're not as focused on potential threats," he added.
Four inmates have died at the Washington County Jail since April:
• 23-year-old Bryce Bybee was found unresponsive in his cell April 17.
• Crystal Leuenberger, 35, died on May 24 — less than 24 hours after she'd been booked.
• 51-year-old Ronald Ferguson died in the booking area while awaiting processing.
• Fabian Hernandez, 31, died after an attempted suicide Aug. 17.
The Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office has not released an official cause of death for any of these incidents.
"Regarding the deaths that occurred in the jail earlier this year, it is crucial to point out that the investigations are ongoing," said a statement from the Washington County Board of Commissioners.
"They are being conducted by the Washington County Major Crimes Team, led independently by the District Attorney," it continued."We ask that the public remain patient as the investigative process continues. Our hearts go out to the families and all those affected by these tragic losses."
The WCPOA stopped short of saying that the staffing woes are directly responsible for the inmate deaths — which are at an "unprecedented" level, Sheriff Pat Garrett said in a statement earlier this year.
"Make no mistake, if someone pushes the emergency button and says I have a person who's trying to hang themselves or is having a medical emergency, it doesn't matter how few people are working, everyone is going to drop what they are doing and go straight to that cell," said Patrick Altiere, a Washington County Sheriff's Office fraud detective, who spoke to Pamplin Media Group in his role as president of the WCPOA.
But they don't have enough bodies to do all the jobs.
Josh Starr, a jail deputy, and senior division representative for the WCPOA, showed Pamplin Media Group emails and shift charts that detailed how jail staff are being asked to work multiple overtime shifts per week.
It's supposed to be on a rotation. If one person works overtime, they shouldn't be asked again the next day. But with so few employees and so many shifts that need to be filled, the rotation breaks down pretty quick, Starr said.
More than that, when deputies are at work, they are often asked to perform the duties of three or four different people.
WCPOA representatives said that deputies are often in charge of inmates' medication, while at the same time expected to do routine wellness checks and change out linens or other personal needs in their housing unit.
Each housing unit holds up to 60 inmates.
"There are deputies being assigned to two (AIC) housing units at the same time," Starr said. "You tell me how you're supposed to be attentive to up to 120 people at a time."
Washington County acknowledged in a prepared statement to Pamplin Media Group that it has had to close one of the jail's housing units due to a lack of staff.
"Out time," when inmates are supposed to be let out of their cells for time outdoors, also has been cut due to the lack of staffing. This has an impact on the inmates' morale, too, which direct supervision-style jails like Washington County's are designed to mitigate.
"The other piece of that — it's not just staff morale," Starr said. "Very close to that is AIC (adult in custody) morale … and what do you do when you're depressed and you already have mental health issues or addiction issues that you're not getting help on? And you're not getting out the whole weekend like you're supposed to?"
"Staffing level is 100% critical to be running a direct supervision facility like this," he added.
What's the county doing?
Washington County says it is taking these staffing shortages seriously but pointed to numerous factors for why filling in the gaps has been challenging.
"Like many other correctional facilities across the nation, workforce recruitment challenges and a persistent staffing shortage within the Washington County Jail have created hardships and impacted morale among staff," a statement from County Administrator Tanya Ange and Garrett said.
"We have also experienced the impacts of similar workforce shortages in other critical service areas such as behavioral health," the statement continued. "In addition, other vital parts of the labor market are experiencing widening labor shortages as well, including child and elder care, mental and physical health care, education and transportation. We are not alone."
The county was vague on what additional steps it is taking to fill several vacant positions at the jail, saying, "To assist with these and future recruitments, the county is preparing to launch a new effort to utilize an outside agency to assist in our efforts to recruit qualified candidates and fill the currently vacant, budgeted positions in the jail."
The county also reiterated that the investigations into the inmate deaths are ongoing by the Washington County Major Crimes Team.
"While there have been no findings from the investigations that connect these tragic incidents to anything related to staffing levels, the Sheriff's Office has arranged for an outside, independent review of the deaths by the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare to ensure we fully understand the contributing factors and learn from them," the statement said.
That review will begin once the Major Crimes Team investigation is complete.
The board of commissioners, as well as Ange and Garrett, expressed gratitude toward the jail staff.
"County Administrator Tanya Ange and Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett acknowledge the extremely difficult challenges involved in managing the Washington County Jail and the importance of providing safety for staff, the public and those in custody," the county's statement said. "Washington County is grateful for our employees who serve in the jail, under very difficult and demanding working conditions."
But the WCPOA says the county isn't doing enough to address the problem or to work with its collective bargaining unit on addressing safety and morale issues.
Makler, who represents other police associations in Oregon and Washington, accused the county of dragging its feet.
"I have recently settled the Beaverton Police contract, I have recently settled the Hillsboro Police contract, (and) I have recently settled the Tualatin Police contract," Makler said. "We were able to get to yes with them. In terms of this organization with the county … we have been bargaining this contract the longest out of any of those, and we are not even close to there yet."
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