Swift County seeks relief from jail staffing requirements
BENSON — The Swift County Commissioners are hoping the Department of Corrections will give them a variance to a proposed rule requiring increased jail staffing, or at least give the county more time to comply.
If a variance isn’t granted, the county may have to spend about $126,000 a year to hire additional jailers to comply with a proposed rule that more than one person be on duty at all times if the jail population exceeds five inmates.
The Swift County jail typically has a population of about six or seven inmates and sometimes up to 12 prisoners, said County Administrator Mike Pogge-Weaver.
While multiple employees work at the jail during the day, only a dispatcher is on duty from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., when inmates are sleeping.
In order to comply with the proposed new rule, the county would have to hire one and a half to two additional jailers, said Pogge-Weaver.
Swift County Sheriff John Holtz said he’s not opposed to having 24-hour jail staff but said there’s just not enough money in his budget to hire additional staff, especially considering the state-mandated one-year levy limits on counties for 2014.
Not complying could force the county to close the jail and house inmates in jails in neighboring counties.
Holtz and Pogge-Weaver said that is not an option the county is considering.
“I’m going to fight to keep it open because it’s too much of an asset for Swift County,” said Holtz.
Under the current rules jails are allowed to have up to 15 inmates supervised by one employee, said Pogge-Weaver.
That is being reduced to no more than five inmates under a proposed change to the 2007 Department of Correction’s jail rules.
The change is being proposed because of concern about the number of inmates that could be “adequately and appropriately supervised by a single staff person who is also responsible for 911/dispatch,” according to the Department of Corrections’ document.
Holtz said the county has safety procedures in place when the dispatcher is the only staff person at the jail, including calling for back-up assistance when necessary so the dispatcher doesn’t go into the jail when they are alone. The county also houses “high-risk” inmates in facilities outside the county where there’s more staffing and resources.
It’s a system that has worked well for years, said Pogge-Weaver, citing the county’s good record of employee and inmate safety over the last 20 years.
Holtz sent the department a letter detailing the county’s procedures. “They were very receptive and liked what they saw,” he said.
The DOC document said there are seven jails that could be affected by the rule change but just two facilities would be required to add staff under the new criteria. The Swift County jail is one of those facilities.
In its “statement of need and reasonableness” the DOC acknowledges the rule change could have a “fiscal impact on small counties that use one jailer/dispatcher as sole supervision of a facility.”
In April Swift County sent the DOC a formal resolution objecting to the proposed changes and asked that they either grant the county a variance to continue operating with one employee or allow the county to implement the rules over a number of years because of “budgetary constraints and realities.”
The county’s resolution said funding those extra positions would be “difficult, if not impossible” to implement “now, in 2014, or into the foreseeable future.”
After receiving that letter, the county “heard informally” that the DOC is trying to accommodate some of the county’s concerns, said Pogge-Weaver.
The Swift County Commissioners agreed last week to withdraw their letter of objection in order not to negatively affect the DOC’s rule-making process, said Pogge-Weaver.
“We’d rather work with them proactively than be a thorn,” said Pogge-Weaver. “I think we’ll come to some type of agreement that both parties can live with.”
Holtz said he’s “feeling a little bit more confident they’ll give us more leeway to move forward.”