Denton County Jail leaders are grappling with an “extreme” shortage of detention officers.
This week, Denton County commissioners transferred $50,000 from jail salaries to overtime pay so the jail can continue to pay entry-level jailers to work overtime while the county searches for new detention officers to fill the ranks.
That’s money that was already in the budget, but the transfer goes to show that Denton County is dealing with an issue that shows no signs of letting up. The budget amendment request from Sheriff Tracy Murphree calls it an “extreme staffing shortage.”
Of the roughly 347 detention officer positions at the jail, about 46 are vacant, sheriff’s Capt. Barry Caver said Tuesday. Caver, who is the assistant chief deputy over jail operations, said all of those slots are entry-level jailer positions — what many consider as some of the most thankless jobs in law enforcement.
Caver said that when the current Denton County Sheriff’s Office administration took over in 2017, the jail was dealing with about 30 vacancies.
“We have never been able to get very much below that,” Caver said. “We never can seem to catch up.”
Denton County joins county jails and prisons around the nation that are struggling to hire and retain detention officers. Next door in Fort Worth, the Tarrant County Jail is in a similar situation.
“That’s a challenge that every jail in America is facing,” Tarrant County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Henry Reyes said Wednesday.
On Tuesday, there were roughly 1,137 people incarcerated at the Denton County Jail. Caver said that about 1,300 people would have to be housed at the jail at one time before the jail would need to call in detention officers from other jails as backup. He said the jail can house about 1,788 at one time.
“The problem is, I don’t have the staff to run that many beds,” Caver said.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards requires one jailer for every 48 inmates at all times. Denton County says it’s well above that threshold.
Jails often are competing for the same pool of workers as those entry-level people sought by incoming companies to North Texas. In Denton County, the jail pays about $36,000 for these entry-level positions.
Community services staffers regularly go to recruiting events and job fairs looking for new hires. Denton’s universities are good places to start.
“But the problem is, there’s mass numbers of companies along side of us,” Caver said. “You’re constantly competing for the same person.”
State prisons are affected at near-crisis level, according to the Houston Chronicle. The newspaper reported in January that nearly a third of Texas prison guards quit in 2018.
And Texas Department of Criminal Justice correctional officers and sergeants clocked about 2.7 million hours of overtime, the highest level since 2009, according to the criminal justice watchdog group Grits for Breakfast.
Denton County Jail detention officers are working more overtime this year, but it’s not all because the county can’t find enough jailers to fill the ranks.
Caver said about 22 new officers were in jail school getting certified to continue their work.
“While these officers attending jail school, a lot of the other officers have to take up the slack,” Caver said.
And work as a jailer is often the starting point for a law enforcement career. Caver said people shout curse words at you, and spit at you, or worse. One detention officer quit last week after just nine days on the job, he said.
“They really can’t relate to the atmosphere or the environment in a jail,” Caver said.