Union leaders fear what they call "staff shortages" at the Shelby County Jail are putting employees at physical risk, while administrators say the jail is safe but does face "major attendance problems."
Violence in the jail grabbed headlines in December when two inmates attacked Deputy Jailer Stanley Jones, breaking his nose and cracking his ribs. It was the second attack on the jailer in 30 days. Another jailer was hit with a plastic chair recently, and yet another was struck by an inmate. One inmate collected his urine and feces and threw it on a jailer.
A Saturday prayer vigil close to the jail at 201 Poplar took the issue to the streets for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1733. AFSCME leaders said they want something done about what they say is an erosion of control inside the jail that was brought about by fewer guards doing more work.
"We're from the South, and we pray about everything. And this issue shouldn't be any different," said AFSCME President Janice Chalmers. "One reason we took the option of a prayer vigil is that we want something done and want to send a message, but we want it done harmoniously."
Shelby County Jail Director Robert Moore said he has and will continue to work with AFSCME on this and many other labor issues. But he wants the union to work with him by encouraging its members to show up for work. Employee numbers slump at the jail because about 30 people take off work on an average day.
"But when [AFSCME says] the jail is unsafe, I differ there wholeheartedly," Moore said. "We have a report card on violence in the jail every month, and we've had no more violence in the past few months than we've had in any other months."
But AFSCME leaders said the staff shortage problem is bigger than attendance figures. They say the number of guards has been eroded by promotions and resignations. But they've also been cut by administrative policy to get paid for sick days, which now require a doctor's note and make it tough to only miss one day of work. Also, strict disciplinary measures for staff can leave a jailer out of work for up to 30 days.
Neither side of the argument blames public financing for any employee shortages though. The jail budget wasn't cut this year and neither were the numbers of employees, about 1,200 people.
The jail operated under strict consent orders from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) until recently. The orders were issued in 1997 and 1999 and aimed to fix a long history of "mismanagement" at the jail, according to the documents. Problems ranged from security, food service, medical treatment, and more.
AFSCME leaders said jail security has started to erode since the order was lifted a few years ago and that the inmates are catching on to it. Moore, however, said "we live by the consent order and the DOJ" every day.
Chalmers said she hopes Saturday's vigil prompts a new discussion with the jail administration.
"The bottom line is, we're just concerned for the safety of the employees and the inmates [Moore] is commissioned to protect," Chalmers said.