The Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail is experiencing a staffing shortage, with no end in sight, according to a recent report from the correctional center’s superintendent.
During a recent meeting of ACRJ’s Authority Board, jail Superintendent Martin Kumer outlined the situation for board members, painting an increasingly dire picture.
According to Kumer, the jail is authorized to have a total of 161 employees but is currently 27 people short of that total. Of those vacancies, 24 are in security and two are in nursing, creating complications, he said.
The nursing vacancies are an issue throughout the country, Kumer said, and a symptom of the greater health needs currently plaguing the United States. ACRJ recently signed a contract with a temporary staffing agency in hopes of finding more nurses, he said, but the jail is currently unable to conduct 24/7 medical services on site.
From midnight until around 6 a.m., Kumer said, there is not a medical staff member on site but a nurse practitioner is on call and staff are able to transport inmates to the University of Virginia Medical Center, if needed.
“Quite a few jails in Virginia don’t have 24/7 medical coverage, so we’re still very fortunate that we do,” he said. “We have a couple interviews coming up for some nurses and we hope to get some new nurses in here, as well as get some nurses back in the building to be able to work here very soon.”
Following a question from Charlottesville Mayor and jail board member Nikuyah Walker about whether any inmates had been adversely impacted by the nurse shortage, Kumer said they had not. However, board Chairwoman Diantha McKeel, an Albemarle County supervisor, pointed to the importance of keeping the area’s hospitals open to new admissions in the time of the pandemic.
“It does remind me there is a connection, because we need to keep our local hospitals with beds and low COVID numbers so that our hospital can continue to take people that we send them,” McKeel said. “It’s all connected and we’re seeing this play out in other states and it’s not good.”
Kumer said staffers from the jail’s programs division have been pulled to fill security needs and one wing of the jail has been closed. All jail employees are taking on additional duties, he said, and without them, the facility would not be able to function.
Despite a recent 8.2% pay rate increase approved by the jail board, Kumer said they are still having difficulty attracting new employees, thanks to similar pay increases at other jails. Most jails start security personnel off at around $40,000 a year, he said, while ACRJ starts off such employees at about $36,000 a year.
“Every jail that I’m aware of is experiencing the same shortages, either worse than we are or maybe slightly better, but not much; we’re just not getting applications,” he said. “We used to get four or five applications a month, and of those, two or three were qualified. But there have been several months where we’ve only gotten one application and that person would not even be close to being qualified.”
Compounding the staffing issue is a slew of retirements, four more of which are set for the end of the year, Kumer said.
“Over the next few months, the jail will lose four staff members to retirement. They have a combined 100 years of experience in corrections,” Kumer said in an interview after the meeting. “The individuals who will eventually be hired to fill those positions will likely have four days of experience after their first day on the job. No amount of money can replace that amount of experience.”
As a potential impact of this lack of experience, Kumer referenced an Aug. 10 incident in which inmates at the Lynchburg Adult Detention Center were able to take control of a housing unit.
According to The News & Advance, inmates barricaded themselves in a cell block for 14 hours. During this time, they heavily damaged equipment and property within the cell block, including windows, camera systems and corrections officer spaces, but not the cell block infrastructure itself.
Joshua Salmon, the jail’s administrator, later said that the barricade wasn’t the result of lack of staffing, according to The News & Advance. Salmon also said that there hadn’t been any marked increase or decrease in complaints leading up to the incident, despite claims of poor living conditions from some inmates.
“We’re getting to a point where it may become pretty dangerous here pretty soon, but I’m grateful our population is low. That has really helped me kind of push through this last year,” Kumer said. “If the jail population gets much bigger, or I have to bring back programs to some degree, we’re going to be really hurting at that point.”
Jay James, the board’s joint county-city representative, asked Kumer at what point would the staffing become an untenable issue.
“I’m asking you this in a public forum in case our prosecutors or other folks who have influence on who’s coming in and out of that jail are listening,” James said. “We don’t have that power as a board, obviously, but it just help us understand where we don’t want to get to so that when we get close to that, we can be aware.”
Kumer said that 375 inmates would cross the threshold of what the jail staffing can currently handle. If the population crosses that threshold, Kumer said they would need to hire four more staff members. However, when factoring in the forthcoming staff retirements, that number would more realistically need to be seven new staff members.
According to Kumer, the jail population typically averages around 325 inmates at any given time, a number that has been lowered from more 400 over the last year-and-a-half due to increased usage of home electronic incarceration. The program, which allows inmates to be monitored by an electronic ankle monitor as they serve their sentences at home, has enabled ACRJ to close a housing unit and free up four staff members.
“It has also lowered costs to operate the facility and thereby offset the loss of other revenues and reduced the need for local tax dollars,” Kumer said. “If it was not for the incredible work of our local courts and commonwealth’s attorneys during the pandemic, I am not sure how we would have been able to operate effectively.”
Local judges, commonwealth’s attorneys, defense attorneys and jail staff are constantly reviewing inmate records to see who can safely and effectively become part of the home incarceration program, Kumer said, and “well over” 400 people have been through the program during the pandemic.
ACRJ averages 50 to 55 people per day in the program, he said, though the number has been as high as 80.
Pay is not the only factor influencing staffing, Kumer said, as public perception of law enforcement also is playing a role.
“Over the last few years, a small percentage of criminal justice agencies across the nation have undermined the community’s trust in all related organizations,” he said. “This makes it even more difficult to recruit qualified staff.”
Kumer said he will ask the jail board in September to allow the jail to conduct a market study and a pay compression study with the intent of ensuring the jails remains competitive in recruiting well qualified staff and retaining current staff.
“The board has always been supportive of our staff, and I consider myself fortunate to work for a compassionate board,” he said.