Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio says he’s hired 500 of the 1,200 detention officers he needs to open two new jails this year and augment staffing at his existing facilities.
But the president of the union representing deputies and detention officers doubts Arpaio will ever hire enough people to safely manage the county’s inmate population.
Chris Gerberry, president of the Maricopa County Sheriff ’s Office Deputy and Detention Officer Association, said he has serious concerns about the backgrounds of those being hired.
Arpaio and deputy chief MaryEllen Sheppard say they’ve hired 500 detention officers within the last year — enough to staff one of the new jails. They say they still need to hire an additional 700 — 600 for the other new jail and 100 to fill spots at the existing jails.
The Lower Buckeye Jail is expected to open within a few months and the Fourth Avenue Jail shortly thereafter, Sheppard said. The new hires are currently filling open positions at existing facilities, such as the Madison Street Jail, which is scheduled to be closed for remodeling after the new jails are open.
Gerberry said despite the new hires, high turnover remains a problem. He also questioned just how well the jails will be staffed once opened.
"I imagine he will open them, but they’ll be totally unsafe," Gerberry said. "They’ll say a certain area only requires one officer, but it’ll take three."
Sheppard said the turnover rate is between 16 percent and 20 percent, but Gerberry puts the number at closer to 40 percent.
The number of detention officers being hired, Sheppard said, is based on figures recommended by a private consulting firm hired by the county.
The staff-to-inmate ratio isn’t what it should be, but they are trying to boost their numbers, Arpaio said.
Late last week, more than 8,800 inmates were locked up in county jails. On average, the jails have a staff-to-inmate ratio of 1-to-10, Sheppard said.
In comparison, Arizona’s prisons have a 20 percent staff turnover rate and a 1-to-5 staff-to-inmate ratio, said John Hallahan, bureau administrator for staff review and training at the Arizona Department of Corrections.
"We hope to get to 1-to-4," Arpaio said. "We’re still trying to catch up. We’ve been behind several years and we’re always going to be overcrowded. . . . That’s why the tents will always be there. Even with all of the new jails, we’re still going to be 1,000 people overcrowded."
Hiring is one of his top priorities, Arpaio said.
"I personally have taken the lead on this everywhere I go because I know how important it is to the taxpayers that we don’t have two new jails sitting empty," Arpaio said. "I’m just a fanatic about that."
Every week, the sheriff’s office hosts three orientation classes hoping to attract prospective detention officers. A new officer academy begins every two weeks and a new class of officers graduates every eight weeks.
Arpaio boasts of hiring people from 28 foreign countries, all of whom are resident aliens, but Gerberry has concerns.
"You’re supposed to have a background investigation done before you’re hired on," Gerberry said. "How are you supposed to do a background investigation on someone from another country? How can you reach back into a guy’s past? How are they going to investigate their credit history and talk to their neighbors?"
The sheriff’s background investigators contact the FBI about all resident aliens to determine if they may have criminal histories, Sheppard said. Native Iraqis, Bosnians, Russians, Vietnamese and Africans are among the new hires.
Any other concerns can be addressed during a polygraph examination, Sheppard said.
Each one of the candidates goes through the same testing process and academy as U.S. citizens, Arpaio said. The testing also includes a prescreening process, psychiatric evaluation and medical exam.
While they don’t have to take written exams, their communication skills are tested thoroughly along the way, Sheppard said.
"We don’t want to hire people to set them up for failure and we know what works so we adhere to our standards," Sheppard said. "We adhere to our standards so the people we get on board have every chance to be successful."
Arpaio said he knew hiring people from Iraq might be controversial considering the abuse of prisoners in Iraq by U.S. servicemen. "But I don’t care where our employees come from as long as they are qualified," Arpaio said.