The Clark County Council moved forward with a plan Tuesday night to take control of its local jail and urged patience to residents who expressed concern with what they perceived to be a rushed and opaque process.
The five councilors largely moved in unison with the plan, voting unanimously to create a new Jail Services Department that will replace the Clark County Sheriff’s Office as the jail’s day-to-day operators. The department is expected to report directly to the County Council.
While the county has created the new department, it hasn’t yet taken control from the sheriff. It’s unclear when the jail will officially change hands. County Manager Kathleen Otto said in Tuesday’s meeting that there would be a “transition.”
“We have not developed a timeline because we didn’t want to put the cart before the horse,” Otto said. “I don’t want to put a specific time on this because we want to get it right.”
The vote followed a handful of county residents who questioned how and why the council planned the move. The move only publicly came to light after OPB reported that Otto notified Sheriff Chuck Atkins on Thursday.
County officials posted a six-page “staff report” ahead of the Tuesday’s meeting, but it answered no questions about what necessitated the move, such as whether there are prevailing safety or financial concerns driving the council’s decision.
“There’s no detail,” said Rob Anderson. “In fact, when I downloaded the proposal (of) the resolution a couple hours ago, there was still no information from the staff about the budget impact or any of that. Maybe the council sees all that info, but the public has not seen that. And that is not how county government should be.”
Some in the audience raised concerns that the move would diminish the role of the elected sheriff. Both candidates for sheriff, John Horch and Rey Reynolds, asked council to delay the decision until after the November election.
However, councilors insisted that the move has been supported by jail staff. The Clark County Corrections Guild, the union representing the jail’s workforce, has not publicly commented on the plan.
Cindi Morrow, a Clark County Corrections Deputy, praised the move during the meeting. Morrow said she’s worked at the jail for more than two decades.
“We’re at a breaking point. I am so looking forward to having a public administrator run that jail,” Morrow said. “It’s been neglected. We’ve been forgotten. And if you delay any further, there may be a time when there will be a catastrophic incident in the jail.”
The comments echo those the guild made months ago. 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.”
Phil Sample, the current jail chief, told OPB last week that the jail has been significantly short staffed. And, according to county tallies, the jail currently has 24 unfilled job openings.
Payroll records obtained by OPB show jail staff have been working considerable overtime recently as well. 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 extra hours.
Meanwhile, the jail population has averaged about 427 inmates over the past year. The recommended populace is 350, county officials said. As of Tuesday, 467 inmates had been housed there.
William Winfield, the county’s director of human resources, said in an email that the jail is trying to manage overcrowding. Some inmates, he said, “have been required to temporarily sleep on mattresses in interview rooms.”
It’s unclear to what extent that information is factoring into the county’s decision. Councilors on Tuesday night only alluded to safety concerns, but none of them, nor Otto, offered any specific detail.
The councilors and Otto iterated that creating the new department is a first step. Responding to some concerns raised by the public, they denied the jail would be privatized or that any staff would be laid off.
Otto said she hoped to see experts on jail management help the transition in a public manner.
“We want to ensure continuity of service. We want to make sure our employees are heard, that the sheriff is at the table, that HR is there, that the public is there,” Otto said. “So it will be very intentional.”
To Councilor Gary Medvigy, creating the department doesn’t guarantee the change will happen. He said after the meeting that if the council can’t show a good reason why the jail needs to be taken over, they don’t have to do it.
“There’s a lot of work to be done with all the stakeholders and the community before this actually takes hold and moves forward,” Medvigy said. “If something goes bad in between, they’ll lose my support.”
After voting to create the new department, the next steps still remain unclear. Otto said the next public discussion over the jail’s future will occur “hopefully in the near future.”