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McLennan County TX hiring Corrections Officers
By wacotrib.com
Published: 05/31/2009

Wanted: A few good jailers -- McLennan County not alone in having hard time filling ranks

Buzz up! By Regina Dennis Tribune-Herald staff writer

Officials say choices for qualified jailers to guard inmates at the county jail are slim because many applicants have a criminal past of their own.

The McLennan County Jail on State Highway 6 has struggled to keep enough jailers on staff to meet the 1-to-48 jailer-to-inmate staffing requirement set by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

While nearly $400,000 in approved overtime for the fiscal year has helped cover the slack, the commission has recommended that the sheriff’s office increase the number of jailers at the facility, which housed 875 inmates as of Friday.

A less-than-stellar application pool, including candidates with criminal histories, has left the sheriff’s office scrambling for suitable hires. And more vacancies open up as jailers leave or retire.

“It’s a double whammy that we’re dealing with,” Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Randy Plemons said. “It’s something that we’re always dealing with as staff turnover fluctuates, making sure we have enough jailers at the jail, and that we also have the staff to cover inmate transport to court or outside medical appointments and things like that.”

State requirements on jailers’ criminal histories also winnow the number of qualified applicants, Plemons said.

The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education mandates that jailers cannot have ever been convicted of any felonies or Class A misdemeanors, such as assault or carrying an unlawful weapon. Applicants also are disqualified if they have been convicted of a Class B misdemeanor, such as possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana, in the last 10 years.

Between Jan. 1 and May 4 this year, the sheriff’s office received 158 jailer applicants. Nearly half of those applicants, or 76, were disqualified based on criminal history, Plemons said.

Applicants with those rap sheets are disqualified because the Texas Department of Public Safety strictly regulates access to databases such as the Texas Crime Information Center, which jailers routinely tap into.

“If you have these convictions, chances are you shouldn’t be in law enforcement in the first place,” said DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange. “We have to be real careful about who has access to that information because there’s a lot in there — your birth date, any criminal history, driver’s license — and we have a responsibility to citizens to protect that and make sure the right people are allowed access to it.”

Law enforcement candidates who have a Class B misdemeanor conviction more than five years old could appeal for a waiver, but rarely are those exceptions granted, Plemons said.

In 2008, the commissioners court authorized the sheriff’s office to hire 12 more jailers at the recommendation of the jail commission. Plemons said though the new positions may have been completely filled at one point, bringing the jail to its full staff of 185, the jail is still short-staffed because jailers resign or are fired.

Jailer hiring, training

It takes about four weeks to complete the jailer application process, which includes a walking tour of the facility, testing 78 or above on the Accuplacer reading and comprehension exam, a timed physical assessment, criminal background check, completion of a 36-page personal history statement on education, employment history and references, a psychological exam and separate interviews with upper management and the sheriff.

As of Thursday, four jailer positions were open, with one candidate being considered for a job offer, Plemons said. New hires then have one year to pass a state jailer certification course taught at McLennan Community College or be terminated.

“We’ve got a couple people that we’re looking at that it looks like could fill the slots, and then we’ll be at near full-staffing levels,” Plemons said. “Now, of course, we may have some people looking to retire or leave that I don’t know about yet, so in another week or two I could just as easily have five more openings.”

The jailers, whose jobs Plemons called the “one of toughest in the sheriff’s department,” rotate working four 12-hour days one week, then three 12-hour days the next. Their shifts are filled handing a variety of duties, from monitoring inmates from a control room, to feeding and moving inmates or escorting medical staff distributing medication.

Between Jan. 1, 2008, and May 4, 2009, 44 jailers resigned, including eight who accepted jobs with other law enforcement agencies, Plemons said.

Jailers hire on at $2,350 a month, plus benefits. If they are still in good standing after six months on the job, that pay goes up to $2,805 a month, or $34,200 annually. They receive annual raises or cost-of-living increases set by the commissioners court. Neighboring Bell County starts its jailers at $24,132 a year.

In comparison, Waco Police officers start at $39,123 and progress to the maximum officer salary of $56,620 after six years.

“Because there are a limited number of qualified applicants out there, if you are qualified, you are going to be sought after by all law enforcement agencies,” Plemons said. “We try to stay competitive, but if you are offered a bigger benefits package, they’re going to take it, and some may prefer being a peace officer over a jailer because you are not tied down into one place for a 12-hour shift all day dealing with prisoners, because they are a rough bunch to deal with. Working at the jail is not for everyone.”

Job stress

Warden Mike Wilson of the privately-run downtown jail, which houses about 300 inmates, said throughout his career he has witnessed some new jailers quit after their first day on the job because of the stressful environment in the detention facility.

“This is one of those jobs where — I don’t care how well-educated you are, how well-trained you are, or how ready you think you are — once you go in here and those steel doors close behind you, and it’s you and all those prisoners, nothing is going to prepare you for that chill that goes down your spine,” Wilson said.

Wilson declined to give the starting salary at the downtown jail but said the county jail does have a higher starting salary. The downtown jail does offer a hiring bonus and a 12-month retention bonus, as well as a salary increase once new hires obtain their state jailers certification license.

“We have one vacancy, and that just opened up (May 27) because we had someone graduate from college and so she’s moving to parole,” Wilson said. “We have 48 jailers on staff, 12 per shift, so we don’t have as big a difficulty as the county jail with finding jailers because their staff is much larger over there because they have a larger population.”Read more.

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