Clark County leaders are considering taking over day-to-day operations of the local jail, a massive reshuffling that would take the department away from the sheriff.
Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins told OPB that he was informed of the plan by County Manager Kathleen Otto on Thursday. Atkins said he was generally supportive, but he wasn’t entirely clear why the change was happening.
“The council is looking at taking corrections and making it a countywide program,” Atkins said. “The reality is, if it makes the corrections branch better, it puts it under their control... and it’s safer for the employees and inmates, I’m all for it.”
Next week, the Clark County Council will be presented with the idea of creating a new Clark County Corrections Branch, according to an email sent to county staff and signed by Otto and Atkins.
“A safe, suitable jail facility for those housed in the jail as well as those who work and provide services in the jail continues to be the number one priority for this countywide service,” the email read.
The jointly signed email said they don’t anticipate any changes for workers. It also underscored that the change is not “a reflection on the current Sheriff’s Office leadership, staff, and operations.”
The news follows jail staff recently describing being overworked in a crowded jail. Phil Sample, the jail chief, said in an interview Wednesday that the jail currently has 27 unfilled job openings.
According to Sample, the inmate population is also higher than recommended. While the population fluctuates, he noted, on Wednesday the jail housed roughly 450 inmates. The recommended number is closer to 350.
The Clark County Corrections Deputy Guild, the union representing corrections officers, has in recent months decried being short staffed and working long hours. In January, the guild wrote to county leaders about being shorthanded, saying that “potential for serious injury or death to staff and inmates is real.”
Payroll records obtained by OPB show jail staff have been working considerable overtime in recent months. In the month of August, about 120 staff clocked more than 2,900 hours of overtime. In that same time frame in 2019, 143 workers notched 1,520 hours.
Atkins said in an interview that he wasn’t told that short staffing or dangerous working conditions played a role in the decision.
“The county says it’s nothing to do with lack of management, or lack of ability to do it, that it’s a strategic plan,” Atkins said. “If there’s something more to it than that, they’re not telling me.”
Representatives for the corrections guild could not be reached for comment.
The move is not without precedent. Multiple Washington counties have placed their jails under the auspices of county officials, including King, Spokane and Cowlitz counties. Two of the most recent are Walla Walla and Benton counties.
When asked about whether he considered the jail understaffed, Atkins agreed and said the same is true of many law enforcement branches.
“Everyone is having trouble with staffing. All industries,” Atkins said.
Atkins added that he has advocated repeatedly for an entirely new jail. Lately, talks have shifted to renovating the old one. In August, the council approved spending $10 million on jail renovations.