COVID-19 cases among jailers exacerbates Smith County Jail staffing shortage

Patrol resources, courthouse security being used to help cover jail shifts
COVID-19 cases among jailers exacerbates Smith County Jail staffing shortage
Published: Jan. 10, 2022 at 7:05 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 10, 2022 at 7:19 PM CST
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SMITH COUNTY, Texas (KLTV) - For an East Texas jail already dealing with a staffing shortage, COVID-19 is causing big problems.

The Smith County Jail had recently started seeing improvement when it comes to filling open jobs, but now jailers and even patrol deputies being out sick with COVID-19 has the jail struggling yet again.

“It’s affected us to the point where we’re down about 18 jail staff right now,” said Sgt. Larry Christian with the Smith County Sheriff’s Office. “Which is also compounded by the fact that we’re about 30 jail staff short. So we’re looking at close to 50 jail staff at this time that we’re without.”

Like other jails, Smith County has long dealt with a shortage in interested candidates and a frequent departure rate from jailers working their way up through the law enforcement ranks. In 2021, county commissioners hoped to remedy the situation with a raise in starting pay to $41,500. Christian said it’s a competitive salary that makes Smith County the area’s highest paying jail.

And while vacancies had slowly improved toward the end of 2021, the recent surge in COVID-19 cases has set the jail back yet again. It comes after the jail already exhausted its overtime budget in December 2021, meaning they offered comp time instead.

“In a jail that employs about right around 200 people, we’re about a quarter down,” Christian said of the COVID absences added with existing vacancies.

Unlike some other employers, a jail can’t just go without staffers for a short time. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards requires a certain number of jailers for a certain number of inmates. This comes along with required checks and documentation that requires a certain number of jailers.

“And so that makes it difficult for us to to sustain what the Texas Commission on Jail Standards mandates that we have in place,” Christian said of the current problems.

And it’s not just the jail having a hard time; Christian said four patrol deputies were out Monday with COVID-19. It comes as the county uses patrol resources to help supplement the jail along with courthouse officers.

“We’ve even got investigators downstairs that are having to supplement patrol,” Christian said.

Christian said they’re handling the situation the best they can, and encourages anyone interested in becoming a jailer to look into applying.

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