The Arlington County Detention Center was built to be a direct supervision jail — one that teaches inmates self-sufficiency and life skills in order to reduce recidivism — but it is so understaffed that those programs often have to be canceled.
"It's not a good way for staff to have to work," Sheriff Beth Arthur told Patch. "And it defeats the purpose of building direct supervision."
The Sheriff's Office recently completed a National Institute of Corrections staffing study that determined it was short 38 positions — 30 in the jail plus another eight for judicial services.
That plus regular staff turnover has led to the jail being locked down 76 percent of the time last fiscal year and a projected 83 percent of the time in the current spending cycle, which ends June 30.
What Lockdown Means
While lockdown doesn't necessarily last entire shifts, it can affect visiting times and cause programs to be canceled, Arthur and her staff told the Arlington County Board on Tuesday.
That includes General Educational Development (GED) prep programs, English as a Second Language, parenting classes, anger management, how to apply for a job and religious programming. Some GED programs can be taken into individual housing units.
"It's frustrating," Arthur told Patch.
The Sheriff's Office relies heavily on volunteers, particularly for its religious programming. Volunteers who repeatedly show up to provide programming only to be turned away can be dissuaded from giving their time, Arthur said.
But various phases of lockdown become necessary for the safety and security of the deputies working in the jail, she said.
"We're waiting for the next thing to happen," Arthur told the board. "We're lucky. We're trained well. But one person making the wrong move is putting staff at risk."
Why Lockdown is Used
Using lockdown to combat being understaffed began years ago in an attempt to shrink the amount of money the Sheriff's Office spent on overtime. Board member Mary Hynes asked the sheriff to start tracking its use a little more than two years ago.
Continued inadequate staffing has only exacerbated the problem: The Sheriff's Office was budgeted $855,000 for overtime compensation this fiscal year; it's projected to spend $1.9 million.
Jail staff work 84 hours every two weeks, which accounts for about $600,000 in overtime just to begin with, Arthur said. She told Patch overtime was "woefully underfunded."
The Sheriff's Office has 271 employees.
The county board cut 11 positions from the Sheriff's Office in 2010 and 2011 and restored three of them last year.
Arthur said ideally lockdown would never have to be used because of staffing levels. She told the board she would need 15 to 20 more staff members to wrangle its use to below 50 percent — but even if those positions were granted, it could take her a year to fill them.
The county's proposed budget for next year does not eliminate any further positions from the Sheriff's Office, though it doesn't restore any, either.
County Manager Barbara Donnellan has proposed $9.3 million in spending cuts to help balance next year's budget, and the county board has given itself the latitude to raise taxes as much as 5 percent.
The county board is working its way through a number of budget work sessions, and public hearings will be held on March 26 for the budget and on March 28 for the tax rate.