Morgan County Sheriff Ron Puckett said the County Commission's approval last week of 105 body cameras for his corrections officers and a 1.5% raise for all full-time employees is a step forward, but more is needed to make his department's jobs safer and more attractive.

“Money is not a silver bullet,” he said. “It’s how they’re treated. The employees are wanting better conditions. Most aren’t there because of the money. Every job we have is dangerous.”

Puckett said commissioners recognize the need for more deputies, jail workers and equipment. He said there are plans to upgrade security cameras in the jail, too.

“We’re trying to work together to get our employees what they need and deserve,” he said. “If we could get four more deputies, that would be amazing.”

Veteran corrections officer Cathy Evans was assaulted at the county jail April 19 by federal inmate Lemond Lawrence Burns, 21, and she was sent to the Decatur Morgan Hospital in serious condition, the sheriff reported. She suffered injuries to her face and head and remains out on medical leave, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Burns was being held on federal conspiracy and fraud charges. The U.S. Marshals Service has transferred Burns to another facility, the Sheriff's Office said. Burns is facing a state murder charge involving the shooting death of Alabama A&M senior Dallis Patrick Ryan Wolfe, 22, in January.

Puckett, in his third year on the job, said the  body camera request was not a result of that attack. “We asked for this weeks ago,” he said. “We want these for all employees in the jail for officer safety and reason of lawsuits.”

County Commission Chairman Ray Long said body cameras are vital and the county is fortunate to be able to afford them now.

“Cameras don’t lie,” he said. “I think it will help. This will ensure the correctional officer has a documentation of the event if something happens with an inmate. Most of the time, federal inmates are better inmates because they don’t want any additional charges. They are there for a reason.”

The county agreed to pay WatchGuard Video of Texas an estimated $995 per camera plus charging stations for an estimated total cost of $120,000. District 4 Commissioner Greg Abercrombie made the motion for the purchase during the commission's meeting last week, and District 2 Commissioner Randy Vest seconded the motion.

Worker scarcity

Puckett wants to improve conditions for his employees because his office, like many businesses, is struggling to find workers.

“I need 11 corrections officers,” he said. “We can’t fill them today because nobody wants to work a job like that. People don’t want to work at restaurants, department stores. It’s a nationwide issue. Law enforcement, firefighters, jailers, hospitals, positions like ours, you just can’t shut down because we don’t have workers. We can’t close the jail. We have to have more employees. How do we get to that point?”

He said the federal stimulus programs are negatively impacting the number of applicants his office is seeing.

“We can’t attract qualified employees,” he said. “There’s no urgency for people to work when they get money for sitting at home.” Three people have applied for those 11 jailer spots, he said. Puckett’s office employs 105 corrections officers.

While the county is now receiving $52 instead of the previous $40 a day for housing federal inmates, Puckett said the increase is misleading because the number of federal inmates is down.

“We’re seeing about $300,000 less revenue because we have fewer federal inmates,” he said. The jail usually houses about 100 federal inmates daily and now that number is about 60, he said. He believes a portion of the decrease may be related to the COVID-19. “The U.S. Marshals Office controls that. But we’ve got to be better funded so we’re able to attract and keep good employees.”

Starting pay for jailers is $13.42 an hour, Long said. After the 1.5% pay increase, it will be $13.63 an hour. Long said the commission is addressing the pay and work conditions at the jail.

“This time last year, jailers were receiving $12.12 an hour. We’re up at least $1.30 an hour. Some have been there several years and they make considerably more,” Long said.

“A couple of years ago we purchased a $200,000 body scanner for the jail to make the jobs there safer. We hate to see anybody get hurt. Danger comes with that job. ... Jailers don’t make enough and neither do deputies.”

He said certified deputies start at $17.37 an hour.

Long added the Sheriff’s Office receives about 50 cents of every dollar in the general fund.

“The remaining general fund money goes to supporting all of the other county offices, probate, sales tax, license, archives,” he said.

“We have great benefits. We haven’t raised health insurance rates on our employees in 12 years. But we can’t pay what the private sector pays. We have no means of generating revenue." 

He said the federal stimulus money is affecting all job openings at the county level.

He said the vacant maintenance supervisor position pays more than $60,000. “We’ve had two or three people apply,” Long said. “Three or four years ago, we’d have 30 applicants.”

Long said the one-step pay hike will cost the county’s general fund $63,854 for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The salary increase goes into effect May 9.

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mike.wetzel@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.

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