Corrections officers struggle with staffing, long hours

Aug. 31—The scene inside the Calhoun County Jail Wednesday morning of last week was a bit fast-paced as corrections officers readied inmates for transport to the courthouse.

Calhoun County Corrections Officer Sgt. Shyla Mears, 42, stood in the booking area getting the agenda for the day from her commanding officer, Lt. Latonya Chames. On any given day, these women move 150 inmates in some form or fashion; moving them to and from booking, to court, attorney visitation, to medical, or even other facilities.

With over 300 men in the facility and responsible for the Anniston jail that houses women as well, the pressure the officers endure would be high even if the facility ran at full staff. However, the number of staff is so low that it isn't an uncommon occurrence for there to be only three people overseeing the entire jail, Mears said.

"You never know what's going to happen," Mears said. "It's never the same, day to day."

Jails across the country are suffering staffing shortages, and Calhoun County is among them. It takes a strong person to do the job, according to Mears.

Shackles, handcuffs, steel doors, concertina wire, the smells, the violence — Mears has endured 12 plus hours of this five days a week for the past four years.

"It's kind of like I'm the one in jail," Mears said, echoing a sentiment Sheriff Matthew Wade expressed recently.

"They're serving time, 12-hour shifts at a time. They're in jail, too," Wade said back in May.

But for less than $15 an hour, the Sheriff's Office has a hard time finding willing participants to take the job. And though it is a tough one, Mears said she loves her job.

She said though the hours are long and it takes a lot of time away from her child, she leaves a lasting imprint on these people's lives. She gets to know them, and there is a level of trust.

The inmates start their morning at 4:30. Lights come on, the cell doors inside the pods come open, and it's time for breakfast. The officers move through each pod dishing out the trays.

Some pods don't open, however. Some sections, the isolation pod and others if they are under disciplinary action, the inmates only get one hour a day outside of the cells.

Around 9 a.m., the jail's nurse comes around to each pod with medication for the inmates, and then lunch is served around 10:30 a.m.

The jail houses multiple pods, each color coded with a different name, with the sex offenders in an isolation pod to separate them from the other inmates.

There's also a detox and suicide watch pod where inmates lie nude on whatever surface they can find, stripped of anything they could use to harm themselves.

Inside the center of the jail, there is what the officers call "the tower" — a control room with cameras for each pod and switchboards for all doors in the facility.

Mears makes her rounds each day helping wherever is needed. Passing each pod, inmates beckon her to the glass — some with legitimate issues, some just seeking attention.

Upon entering the jail, inmates get scanned by an X-ray machine to ensure that no devices or contraband is hiding in their bodies.

The nonviolent inmates can apply for various jobs in the jail, such as kitchen staff. These jobs allow for privileged opportunities for some, and help the jail run more smoothly.

Inmates are prepped for transport or readied to speak with their attorneys — shackled, handcuffed and put into a room with video but no audio feed.

Mopping, laundry, showers, meals; there is a lot to be done with little staff to do it.

Mears said no matter the reason the inmate is in the facility, the officers must treat them the same. It can be difficult at times, when some inmates are calm and collected, and some are trying to fight. She said she tries not to take it personally.

People come into the jail, and it's their "worst day," Mears said. That tends to put people in a bad mood.

The sheriff sees it as a test of supervisory patience and skill.

"The jail is a tough place, but it teaches you a lot about life. It teaches you, if you can work in the jail you can work anywhere," Wade said.

Wade said working at the jail is also a great place "to get your foot in the door" and get started with a career in law enforcement.

"There was a young man that started in the jail back in January of 1996 for $5 an hour that was a JSU college student, and now that man is the sheriff," Wade said, speaking of himself.

In addition to the career training opportunities it offers, the Sheriff's Office, in conjunction with the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, picks up 20 percent of the cost of tuition at Jacksonville State University for any student who works as a corrections officer in the jail. It also offers full benefits of insurance, dental, vision, and a "flex plan" for prescriptions and co-pays, according to Wade.

"We have a 25-year retirement at the Sheriff's Office; which in today's world, when you're a young person, that doesn't necessarily strike anything to you. But as somebody who has surpassed that 25 years, man, it sure is nice to know that I'll have that retirement check coming in when I decide to retire," Wade said.

"There are lots of opportunities for growth and "the possibilities are endless," he said.