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No more vacancy

The Jackson County Jail is full again, less than a week after it restored capacity to 292 beds.

The jail reopened its basement on April 24, ending its year-and-a-half closure and restoring its capacity by roughly 20 percent, Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said. Those extra 62 beds were full within six days.

“It just shows that there’s an overwhelming need for a bigger facility," Sickler said.

Lt. Josh Aldrich, who oversees day-to-day jail operations, said he believes the extra 62 beds will have a positive impact on the community.

When an inmate is booked, a risk-assessment system assigns him a number based on the severity of his crimes and his likelihood to re-offend, among other factors. When the jail reaches capacity, if a suspect with a higher number gets booked, a suspect with a lower number gets bumped.

“Hopefully the people we’ll be cap-releasing will be a little lower than before,” Aldrich said.

“The threshold was pretty high to stay in the jail,” Sickler said, referring to the period of the basement closure. “That’s 20 percent less people you have to make decisions on.”

Aldrich said jail staff used the six days before the basement beds became occupied to move inmates around in order to gave maintenance staff an opportunity to paint and deep clean dorm facilities.

“We had to do a really thorough maintenance update and cleaning,” Aldrich said.

Sickler said a goal of reopening the jail by July 1 had been in place before he took office. Once he became sheriff, Sickler asked for a cost-benefit analysis related to overtime and morale to open the first weeks of April, May or June instead. 

“We really wanted to see if we could open it sooner,” Sickler said.

He decided on April 24 after weighing overtime costs while one just-hired deputy completes his six-week academy training in June. The basement closure allowed staff time to complete the 40 hours of recommended training, which Aldrich says covers topics including defensive tactics, verbal skills and ethics.

According to Aldrich and Sickler, the jail has internal minimum staffing standards set for inmate and employee safety, though the exact numbers are confidential.

“If someone calls in sick, we have to fill those vacancies with overtime,” Sickler said. "We do have an obligation to keep (inmates) as safe as possible." 

The jail has gained 12 staff positions since November 2015, up from 40 when former Sheriff Corey Falls closed the basement level following a concern about a lack of training and a wave of retirements throughout the law enforcement industry. Sickler said the retirements stemmed from changes in Oregon's Public Employee Retirement System.

“That created a lot of vacancies in Oregon,” Sickler said. “We were not only competing with ourselves but statewide.”

At the end of 2015, there were 17 openings across the department, about 10 percent of the entire agency's workforce.  Even though Sickler describes the agency now as "fairly young," he said he's actively keeping a hiring pool to prevent such shortages should a wave of vacancies hit the department again.

A new wave of corrections deputy applicants will take their initial written test Friday and physical test Saturday, Sickler said, the first steps in a rigorous hiring process that includes an extensive background check and mental and physical tests. It's common for applicants to wash out at different stages, Sickler said.

"It's hard to find quality applicants," Aldrich said. "We're trying to stay ahead of it."

Aldrich admits that the hiring process is "pretty strenuous," but noted it's "not an easy job." Jail staff work to accommodate job shadows for interested applicants so they can tangibly understand how a jail environment differs from how it's portrayed on TV. Despite the high-stress aspects of the job, Aldrich says staff check on each other. Sickler said positive word-of-mouth is another goal they try to keep.

Sickler said initiatives to open a larger facility are just in their infancy, but the current jail's layout is "not set up to be efficient." Capt. Dan Penland, who oversees the broader corrections initiatives at the sheriff's department, has been tasked with working with partner agencies to determine the needs a new facility should fill.

Sickler said that the jail is a critical starting point for people facing mental health issues and addiction.

"It's really the foundation for criminal justice," Sickler said. "We're going to do our best to keep it open."

— Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

The basement of the Jackson County Jail is open, adding an additional 62 beds to the facility. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]