Originally created 07/29/01

Guard shortage raises risk



Richmond County sheriff's Deputy David Copeland's job shows on his face: right under his left eye where the cut was sewn up.

Earlier this year, an unruly inmate blind-sided Deputy Copeland when he entered a fourth-floor common area in the jail at the Richmond County Law Enforcement Center on Walton Way.

That came after the break-up of his marriage a year earlier, a divorce he blames on the odd hours and job stress.

"(The job) probably had something to do with it," he said.

The job of Richmond County jailers such as Deputy Copeland - especially those working the night shift - is more dangerous these days as they try to make it through the shifts with skeleton crews.

The problem is not enough money for the needed manpower.

The facility is so short-handed, the road patrol deputies were put on alert several weeks ago when about 64 inmates rebelled.

That's usually how the department handles potential riots. The men calmed down before the armed deputies had to be summoned.

The towering Walton Way jail has been beset by staffing problems since it opened in 1985, according to Capt. Gene Johnson, jail administrator.

But he says the situation became worse this year when the Augusta Commission ordered the sheriff to cut $1.2 million from his budget - leaving the department scrambling to cover shifts with fewer people.

Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength said when he asks for more positions for the 2002 budget later this year, filling slots at both jails - the county also operates the Augusta-Richmond County Detention Center on Phinizy Road - will be the first priority.

"If a major fight broke out in the jail, I don't think we'd have adequate coverage to handle it," the sheriff said. "We don't have enough manpower to do two things: protect our jailers and protect our inmates, who I am also responsible for."

Examining numbers

On night shifts, the ratio of inmates to guards at the downtown jail can be 23-to-1. On the fourth floor, one jailer in a control tower watches 128 inmates. The maximum-security fifth and sixth floors have one jailer to 64 inmates. Four floors share two rovers, if they're available.

By comparison, the Dougherty County jail in Albany - a one-story facility with a capacity rate similar to that of the Richmond County site - has 31 people running shifts with about 940 inmates, said Col. Doug McGinley, the jail director. One guard watches 96 inmates, but only 48 are allowed out of their cells at a time in minimum-security areas, and only six at a time in maximum-security areas.

John Southern, the director of jail assistance for the Georgia Sheriff's Association, said Richmond County's situation seems to be a tough one.

"I just don't see how they do it."

Mr. Southern consults with county jail officials throughout the state on staffing, planning and audits. On a recent visit to the Muscogee County jail in Columbus, also a multilevel building, he said, he recommended two people - one in the control booth, another on the floor - to watch groups of 90 to 100 inmates.

The National Institute of Corrections doesn't have a standard ratio recommended for guards to inmates because jails differ in design, types of inmates and operations, all of which affect the number of jailers needed.

But generally the average ratio of inmates to jail employees is 4-to-1, said Bill Lemacks, a criminal justice consultant for the Sheriff's Association and former Clayton County sheriff. That encompasses all personnel at the jail, including administrators, nurses and cooks.

Operations should run smoothly at that ratio, he said.

The jail at 401 Walton Way can house approximately 380 inmates and needs about 25 deputies working a shift, Capt. Johnson said. At times, there are as many as 19 deputies or as few as 16.

Mixing the figures at the Walton Way and Phinizy Road jails puts Richmond County at the national average. Capt. Johnson said he currently has about 842 inmates and 215 employees - almost right at a 4-1 ratio.

But employees are still losing float days and vacation days. Some have built up more than a hundred hours of compensation time.

Capt. Johnson said giving the employees breaks and time off can't always be done, because someone has to watch the floors 24 hours a day.

"We're doing what everyone else is doing," he said. "We're trying to do the job with what we've got."

Showing the strain

At least once a week, inmates start fights, refuse orders or threaten to riot, even though many of them are still awaiting trial or are only serving time for misdemeanors, jail workers say.

For the outnumbered, overworked deputies, lockdown is a way of bringing the men in line. It can last up to a week. No one is allowed in their wing's common area, which has a television set, telephones and metal tables bolted to the floor.

During a lockdown earlier this month, inmates on the west half of the fourth floor weren't happy. Their faces peered from square windows in rows of cell doors, all bolted shut. Some banged on the glass. Some shouted profanities.

Deputy Jason Youngblood delivered a roll of toilet paper to one of them. The man stepped out of his cell and protested.

"When one guy does something wrong, they take it out on all of us," the man screamed.

Deputy Youngblood, a rover who patrols the chambers and escorts inmates, said he doubted they were learning a lesson.

"It can be annoying," he said. "They're adults acting like children. They play games like children."

It's not that the jails are hopelessly overcrowded: A June report by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs showed Richmond County's jail at 85 percent of its capacity, far better than the Cherokee County jail at 260 percent, the Carroll County jail at 217 percent and the Columbia County jail at 146 percent.

They're just woefully understaffed, officials said.

Preparing for trouble

In neighboring Columbia County, the jail has a Corrections Emergency Response Team. The members are trained to handle outbreaks of violence quickly and painlessly. Rank-and-file jailers also carry pepper spray and batons, whereas only supervisors carry them in Richmond County.

Capt. Johnson said he doesn't allow his jailers to carry defensive weapons because he doesn't want an inmate getting their hands on one. Sheriff Strength said his jails would have react teams if he had the manpower.

Some officers say the top brass aren't the only ones noticing the shortages.

"Even the inmates have told me, 'Oh, you're running a skeleton crew, huh?' To me, that's kind of dangerous," Deputy Youngblood said.

The deputies stationed at the jail, most of whom are armed only with harsh words, work 12-hour shifts and count themselves lucky if they get 15-minute breaks.

Lt. Rosa Tate, a night-shift supervisor known to take on men twice her size, said the crews get the job done despite the hard times. They do it by working together as a team, she said, and most realize this isn't a job where you can just disappear for an hour.

"When your shift is short (of deputies), there's just no way," Lt. Tate said. "You constantly have something to do."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.