Guest Column: Holding public officials accountable on public safety

By Anthony Ponte
Vice President of Special Projects, AFSCME Local 473

The men and women who work in Corrections (this vitally critical field) deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity that everyone in law enforcement should be afforded. Corrections is not a stepping stone for patrol, as has been previously reported — it is a career.

Although responsibilities may be different from officers who patrol our streets, correctional officers deal with the same criminals and face the same dangers, but for a longer period of time. Correctional officers have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses, often resulting from confrontations with inmates. Each day when we report for duty, we deal with things that the average person (in all likelihood) couldn’t handle. Oftentimes, we care for inmates who refuse to care for themselves. Many days, we are responsible for overseeing more than 65 detainees, by ourselves.

The recent informational press conference by the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department employees represented by our union was not a “ploy” or “negotiation tactic,” as some have suggested. County employees are determined to bring to light the very issues we have been forced to deal with over the past several years. Regrettably, these safety and health issues have consistently fallen on deaf ears.

Everyone agrees the Winnebago County Corrections Department is understaffed. Our union has brought other safety concerns to the administration’s attention also. Oftentimes, we are forced to make do with inadequate equipment, such as faulty radios that don’t work more than half the time. These radios provide a lifeline when we need help.

The Sheriff’s Department has also failed to provide a modified vehicle to transport disabled prisoners. Officers are forced to lift these prisoners in and out of the vehicles, which present not only a safety hazard for officers, but also a huge liability for the county, should someone get hurt. Time and time again, workplace safety concerns have been completely ignored. The administration’s focus remains on “other things” that are perceived to be more urgent or more important.

Winnebago County has a 911 Emergency Call Center that has been understaffed since the day the doors opened. These hard-working men and women put in a 12-hour shift, then go home for four hours — and are frequently forced to come back into work. Sometimes, they are mandated to work six and seven days a week, with little to no rest in between shifts. No one should be forced to work under these conditions. Citizens in crisis should be able to count on the county for ensuring public safety.

The taxpayers were asked to pass a 1 percent jail tax (which later evolved into the 1 percent Public Safety Tax). The public was told that this 1 percent tax would be used for three things:

1. To build and maintain the new jail. The jail has since been built, but maintaining the facility has proven to be a challenge. The county’s Maintenance Department does not have the proper staff, equipment or parts to properly maintain the building as a result of recent budget cuts. We regularly run out of simple supplies, like disinfectant spray, cleaning solution, spray bottles, brooms, mops, bedding and laundry soap, often going weeks without needed supplies. Fresh air is supposed to be exchanged once an hour throughout the building, but that, too, does not happen because it costs too much to re-heat/re-cool the building, so it is done once a week.

2. To maintain and properly staff the jail. A study was done before the jail was completed, and it showed that for 800 inmates, they needed 223 officers to open three floors. When the fourth floor opens and the population goes above 800 inmates, they would need an additional 15 officers per shift. The staffing levels were correct for the first several months, and then staffing levels dropped, as a result of budget cuts, and were never brought back to where they need to be. The inmate population has been way above 800 inmates for the past seven years, topping around 1,000 (these numbers do not include work-release inmates). It has only fallen below 800 a handful of times, and in the recent months, because of more inmates being released on personal recognizance bonds and those being sent to prison.

3. For programs. There were once three staff handling all the detainee programs in the jail, and because of budget cuts, we now have only one. This is too much for one person to handle on a day-to-day basis. Programs have been slowly cut one by one because of budget cuts. The most recent program cut was “anger management.” Why are these programs being cut?

Remember, the first year that the 1 percent Public Safety Tax was in place, the county took in more than $2.9 million more than what they had projected (extra money). The county had numerous years where more revenue than projected was generated by the 1 percent tax. So, what happens to the millions of dollars that are taken in?

As guardians of the public safety, the county board and the elected officials need to be held accountable and take responsibility for their actions. They need to stop with the smokescreens. They need to stop trying to push the focus off themselves and onto others. The citizens of Winnebago County deserve at least that much. Public safety is everyone’s concern.

From the Nov. 19-25, 2014, issue

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