COVID aid helps buy body scanner at Columbia County Detention Center; Facility copes with jailer shortage : KZHE News Blog
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COVID aid helps buy body scanner at Columbia County Detention Center; Facility copes with jailer shortage

by J.D. Bailey on 12/07/21

The Columbia County Detention Center received a major safety and security upgrade this week after a new piece of scanning equipment was purchased with a portion of the county’s federally-issued coronations relief funds. The new full-body scanning machine will not only help detect abnormal body temperatures of inmates to protect against the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but it will also help detect any security concerns by new or returning inmates into the jail population.

The purchase was approved Monday by the Columbia County Quorum Court. The machinery comes with a price tag of $174,000, according to the Dec. 6 county appropriation ordinance. The funds used to acquire the jail’s new safety and security equipment came via the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The federal legislation dispersed more than $350 billion in aid monies to cities, counties, states, and other institutions around the nation for coronavirus recovery efforts. Columbia County, according to the U.S. Treasury, has been earmarked to receive a total of just over $4.5 million. In total, governments and institutions in Arkansas will receive over $2.6 billion in aid.

The first half of the county’s relief aid was issued earlier this year by the federal government. In October, the Columbia County Quorum Court elected to use $1.5 million of that aid for retroactive premium pay bonuses to all county workers who were employed from March 2020 through the end of May 2021. The move fell under the federal spending rules for the aid, according to U.S. Treasury guidelines.

The second half of the federal coronavirus aid is set to be issued by May 2022. The monies, according to the American Rescue Plan Act, must be used by the end of 2024.

The new body scanning machine will serve as more than just a coronavirus symptom detection platform. It can also be used as a security measure for detainees and inmates entering or re-entering the jail population, according to Rick Waller, District 5 Justice of the Peace and chairman of the Quorum Court’s Jail Committee. 

“This not only is for COVID,” he said. “… If a trustee leaves and comes back, and if there is anything on them – a cell phone or anything else – it can detect it.” 

The new scanner, according to Columbia County Sheriff Mike Loe, will have similar capabilities to the machines used by TSA security agents at airports across the country. The scanner also can be mobilized to different areas of a building, according to JP Penny Cook. 

“If the jail falls down, we can move it,” she said. 

There was no word announced Monday when the new scanner would arrive, but the purchase was approved unanimously by the members of the Quorum Court. 

JAILER SHORTAGE

Although soon to be blessed with new safety and security equipment, the Columbia County Detention Center is still short on one thing -- employed jailers.
On Monday, Columbia County Sheriff Mike Loe stated that his office is missing three full-time jail staff members, and potential prospects are bleak.

“We can’t even get anyone to apply,” he said. “… We’re understaffed all the time.”

The jailer staff is typically made up of 14 detention center employees, but at the moment, the staff is sitting at only 12 jailers. To complicate matters, the job of the jailer does not take well to shortages in the staff. Since the detention center never closes, the job entails 24-hour duty for the staff. And with the jailer shortage, that means lots and lots of overtime and lots and lots of extra pay for workers.

The budget, though, is not the issue. According to JP Rick Waller, the funds are there to fully staff the jailer team, but there are no prospective workers on the horizon.

“We have the money to pay them in the jail fund,” he said, “but we just don’t have any applicants.”

Starting pay for a full-time jailer is currently $14.51 per hour. The turnover rate at the position is “pretty high,” according to the sheriff.

And that’s not all. With no applicants, the Loe does not know when the voids will be filled.

“We even sent two staffers to a job fair recently, and we didn’t get anything,” the county sheriff added. “...We just try to keep the wheels going as best we can.”

To make matters worse, according to Waller, one of the current jailers is scheduled for a medical procedure at the end of the month. The move is expected to sideline the employee for weeks and leave the jail staff even further depleted.

“We’ve got to try to come up with something to get some jailers,” he said. “No one wants to work right now.”

Sheriff Loe, however, has resorted to some creative ways to fill open vacancies at the jail. The county official has even gone beyond common gender designations for some positions of need.

“We even have hired a female for a male position,” he said. “We were that desperate.”

When asked by one justice of the peace if the employee was still in the job, Loe replied, “Yes, so far.”

To inquire about a job with the Columbia County Detention Center, call the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office at 870-234-5331.

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