County jails in the Twin Cities metro area and around the state are struggling with a staffing crunch with rising job vacancies and fewer applications from people wanting to be corrections officers.
The short staffing is forcing the jails to re-evaluate their operations as they shuffle inmates to other facilities and put programming for inmates, from GED classes to anger management sessions, on hold. Meanwhile, county officials and jail administrators are trying to find new ways to recruit and hire corrections officers to stem the problem in an economy where many businesses need workers.
"If we're having the same issue as everybody else and all of a sudden we run out of staff to man the jails, I don't know what we'd do," said Cmdr. Pat Enderlein of Dakota County's Detention Services Division.
Several jail administrators described a similar cycle: fewer qualified applicants who now have ample job opportunities, many no-shows for job interviews and lots of burnout among stressed-out corrections officers, which leads to resignations. Plus, they say it's hard to move someone new into the job quickly because background checks, psychological evaluations and training take time.
In Dakota County, an increase in inmates and 18.5 open corrections positions prompted the jail in August to start sending up to 40 male inmates — nearly a third of the jail's average population — to the Wright County jail, which can handle more people.
The arrangement, likely lasting several months, allows Dakota County to keep one housing unit closed and costs $66,000 a month, Enderlein said.
"It's very uncommon," Enderlein said. "To move entire housing units is certainly not the norm."
The Scott County jail has 48 corrections officers when fully staffed. But right now, it has five vacancies, and a handful of new corrections officers are still in training, said Sheriff Luke Hennen.
He's lost some workers to police departments, which have many openings.
Other employees who buckled down and kept working during the COVID-19 crisis are now quitting because they're ready to work elsewhere.
"It wore them out," Hennen said of the pandemic.
The vacancies put more pressure on deputies and have kept programs that paused earlier in the pandemic — like GED, anger management and domestic violence classes — from starting up again because officers assigned to those roles get pulled to fill corrections officer shifts. Work release is operating on a very limited basis, he said, and there's lots of mandatory overtime among employees.
"You lose the ability to expand that programming stuff, the stuff that really can make an impact on outcomes," Hennen said. "Operations kind of suffer because of the importance of safety."
Capt. Heather Stephens, Goodhue County jail administrator, said the problem is widespread in greater Minnesota, too.
"Everyone's in the same boat," she said. "It's just to what degree we're short-staffed."
Dakota County Commissioner Mike Slavik said he suggested jail officials look into ways to streamline the hiring and training process to fix the jail's staff shortage faster.
The Washington County jail has 66 corrections officer positions when fully staffed. But three to six employees are typically on military or medical leave and three to six spots are vacant, said Jail Cmdr. Roger Heinen.
Heinen said the jail is constantly interviewing and hiring. Then some people change their mind about the job during three months of field training or the one-year probation period.
Once on the job, officers are subject to stress and trauma, he said. Fewer officers means more forced overtime and denied vacation time and training opportunities, which exacerbates burnout.
"You're in a constant state of shortages," he said. "The mantra is kind of, do more with less."
The result is less time to interact one-on-one with inmates while doing well-being checks or distributing meals, Heinen said.
"Then sometimes you're prone to more mistakes," Heinen said.
Those mistakes can have grave consequences. An officer could release the wrong person, he said, or give the wrong medication or miss the signs of a suicidal inmate.
He said jails are trying to reach out to less conventional groups to recruit. Some, like Washington County, have begun allowing officers to have visible tattoos, beards and ponytails over the last few years to be more flexible, or offering pay that accounts for previous experience to start workers at a higher wage.
"We're struggling, but we're doing the best we can," Heinen said.
Erin Adler • 612-673-1781