Dallas' new hires wait months for academy; some say practice can be costly, dangerous
By KEVIN KRAUSE - The Dallas Morning News - Thursday, July 5, 2007
Dozens of newly hired Dallas County jail guards are going straight to work, supervising inmates for months before undergoing any formal training or taking the state's licensing exam.
Though officials say there have been no incidents attributed to the untrained guards, the practice of immediately putting them in contact with inmates is considered by some experts to be potentially dangerous – and costly.
The practice is legal: Temporary jailer licenses from the state allow recruits as young as 18 to work inside jails while they await a spot in a training academy. A sheriff's department has one year to get them trained and certified as jailers. The new hires are supposed to be under the constant supervision of training officers.
But with Dallas County hustling to fill a couple of hundred new positions to address a jail-staffing crisis, the quality and extent of that supervision are in question.
Most of the 215 new jail guard positions created since late last year have been filled. But there are only about 115 training officers to supervise them.
Some recruits are spending up to six months on the job before being admitted to the four-week academy, officials said, often coming into direct contact with inmates.
The new recruits haven't yet learned rules and regulations or important skills such as proper restraint and search techniques. Their placement also poses the question of liability for the county.
If an inmate is injured in an encounter with a rookie guard, for example, the county could be held liable for failing to properly train the guard.
A good thing
Sheriff Lupe Valdez referred questions to her spokesman, Michael Ortiz, who said a little on-the-job training before hitting the classroom can be a good thing.
He said he supervised three trainees when he was a detention training officer in 1997. Training officers are jailers who take on the extra duties for $100 extra a month.
"You're never outside each other's line of sight," he said.
Deputy Ortiz said he would assign certain duties to his trainees and then watch them. Training officers have to fill out evaluation sheets on the recruits each month. Any deficiencies are corrected the following month, he said.
"The liability is always there, but the training officer knows that," Deputy Ortiz said. "It makes them train better."
Staffing shortages at the Dallas County jails have contributed to failed state inspections four years in a row. The county has not been able to meet the state's minimum staffing requirement of one guard for every 48 inmates.
As a result, county commissioners have been adding guard positions as fast as they can. Since Sheriff Valdez took office in 2005, 355 jail guard positions have been added, according to the county budget office.
And Sheriff Valdez has been counting them toward the 1-48 ratio as soon as they're hired.
The most recent jail inspection by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards in late March noted that new employees were being assigned to jail duties even before their paperwork was sent to the state for a temporary jailer license.
Corrections experts say putting newly hired guards to work right away is a risk that's all too common at prisons and jails because of problems with recruitment, training and retention of jail guards.
Kenneth McGinnis, a partner with the consulting firm MGT of America, said most counties try to place recruits into schools before on-the-job training so they have at least some skills going in.
But often, inexperienced recruits find themselves guarding violent offenders not long after filling out a job application, he said.
"Unfortunately, it's a frequent occurrence," said Mr. McGinnis, a former director of prison systems in Michigan and Illinois. "In some cases they have little choice."
Not all large Texas sheriff's departments put new hires directly to work.
Executive Chief Deputy Bob Knowles of the Tarrant County Sheriff's Office said his department used to do it that way. But that policy was later viewed as risky, he said. Mind games between inmates and jailers are common, he said, and inexperienced guards could find themselves taken advantage of or conned.
"Liability-wise, I'm not sure it's a good idea to put new people in the jail where a lot of things can happen," said Chief Knowles, who used to command the Dallas County jails.
Deputy Chief Dennis McKnight, Bexar County's jail administrator, said recruits get on-the-job training after spending more than two months in the academy. Unlike other jails, Bexar County uses deputies in the jail rather than civilian jailers, known here as detention service officers.
"We want our officers as well-trained as possible before we put them on the floor," he said.
The additional training makes guards more confident, which is reflected in their attitude and manner while working among inmates, Chief McKnight said.
Lt. John Martin of the Harris County Sheriff's Office said newly hired guards spend their first two weeks on a training floor that houses low-risk inmates who spend their days on work details. After that, the rookies are supervised by experienced guards while they await a spot in the academy, he said.
"We try to limit their direct contact with inmates," Lt. Martin said.
Stan Thedford, president of the Dallas County Sheriff's Association, said he would like new hires to go to the academy first. The biggest threat to security inside the jails, he said, is fraternization between inmates and guards.
That can be avoided, he said, by properly training jailers before they're allowed to interact with inmates.
4- to 6-month wait
Capt. David Mitchell, who oversees training and personnel at the Sheriff's Department, said it's taking four to six months to get new hires into the academy.
The classes are filling up quickly, he said, with about 40 recruits to every class. Capt. Mitchell said he's holding about 10 classes this year. Normally, it's half that number, he said.
"We're running them back to back to stay caught up," he said. "We've only got one year to get them trained."
Once they pass the state's licensing exam, rookie guards are issued a permanent jailer's license. Before that, they are on probationary status and can be fired for any reason without a hearing.
Deputy recruits, by contrast, must complete the academy and pass the peace officer licensing exam before they are allowed to patrol the streets.
Ideally, jail guard recruits shouldn't have to work inside a jail for more than two weeks before entering the school, Capt. Mitchell said.
"There's too much of an opportunity for them to develop bad habits," he said. "We have to correct those in the academy."
Recruits, he said, need training on what is the allowable force to use, as well as defensive tactics, handcuffing and other specialized skills.
"That is one of the reasons we want to get them in school as soon as possible," he said.
Working in the jails before the academy gives recruits an opportunity to see if they'll enjoy the work, said Deputy Ortiz, the department spokesman. Some don't. One recruit called it quits after three days, Deputy Ortiz said. That saves the county the expense of having to put the recruit through the academy, he said.
County Commissioner John Wiley Price, chairman of the county's jail population committee, said he hasn't heard of any problems involving trainees. He said sheriff's commanders are aware of the issue and have stressed the need for better supervision of jail guards.
Mr. Price said Sheriff Valdez inherited the staffing shortage problem and is doing the best she can to address it.
"When it's all said and done, they are managing well under extremely dire circumstances," he said.
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