According to a Police Union representative, the jail is so understaffed that officers have already accumulated over 3,289 hours of overtime and one officer was denied leave for a family emergency.
By Jeremiah Schenerman | Wednesday, March 20, 2019
The new Cape May County Correctional Facility is facing serious scrutiny as earlier concerns over understaffing and lack of resources have become a reality during the first few months of the facility’s operation.
Members of The Cape May County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 spoke at the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting on March 12th to express concerns about excessive mandatory overtime, officer safety and fatigue, and a lack of response from County officials.
According to statements given by Katherine Hartman, member of the Fraternal Order of Police Legal Defense Plan, Officers working at the jail have worked 3,289 hours of overtime since the facility opened January 14th. She estimates this has cost County taxpayers $146,373 in overtime pay and if nothing changes, will cost taxpayers $1.1 million this year. Ms. Hartman also expressed deep concerns about officer fatigue, morale and safety. Officers are currently working 16-20 hour shifts and are expected to be “on call” any time they are not working.
Ms. Hartman explained to the Board how fatigue and mandatory overtime affect officers’ ability to conduct their job well. She explained that fatigue is exponential. Each day an officer doesn’t have time to attend to their life they become more stressed, more fatigued and less able to perform their job safely.
“Sleep deprivation can lead to a mental state very similar to having a blood alcohol content of .05%. There are laws in every state that prevent truck drivers from driving when tired,” she said. “These officers are duty bound to protect the security and safety of their inmates,” and added, “I wouldn’t trust someone deprived of sleep to watch my child.”
Officer burnout, or employee turnover has been a pressing problem for the Cape May County Corrections Division. In a public statement made in January, the FOP Lodge 7 claimed that over the past 10 years 89 Cape May County corrections officers resigned their position. That’s the same number of officers currently on staff. The FOP claims that this turnover leads to understaffing and that without new hires, the problem will carry over to the new facility. “Fresh, alert officers are better able to perform their duties than an officer finishing a 16- or 20-hour shift,” said FOP Lodge 7 President Thomas Martino. “Sheriff Nolan and the Board of Chosen Freeholders are opposed to additional hires as a cost-saving measure. However, safety and security should be their first consideration.”
“These officers have lives. They’re real people with children and home lives. They can’t be ‘on call.’ What does that even mean? Does that mean I can’t go see family out of town? Does that mean if I’m at my kid’s soccer game and I get a call I have to leave or risk being fired?” she said.
Ms. Hartman asked the Freeholders to imagine the stress enforced on our Corrections Officers due to the County’s policies. She told the Freeholders and Sheriff about a request that was denied just that morning. A Correctional Officer requested emergency family leave to join his family in visiting a dying family member in Philadelphia. He was denied because of a lack of adequate staffing to cover his shift. Freeholders had no comment.
The new Correctional Facility was built to house up to 320 inmates in 5 separate housing units. The new facility features ‘direct supervision’ where officers spend most of their time in the common living area with the inmates they supervise. This method has been shown to create a better working environment between officers and inmates, allowing for interaction and direct management. While it can be effective, direct supervision also exposes officers to safety concerns not associated with traditional detention management programs where officers typically spend their time in a room barriered off from the population.
Concerns were raised during planning and construction over the design that features minimum security units with no gates or doors. The County Correctional Facility is built to house all categories of inmates up to Maximum Security. The Fraternal Order of Police questioned how officers would control 64 inmates during a facility wide emergency and expressed the safety concerns that arise from that kind of situation. They insist new training must be conducted for officers transitioning to this new kind of management, and that additional officers must be hired.
“It’s not good enough to say, ‘We will wing it.’ But that is what’s being done” says Thomas Martino.
A former County Correctional Officer spoke about the history working at the old jail. Retired after 25 years, David Robinson experienced understaffing, deterioration of maintenance and nepotism during his tenure at the old County Correctional Facility. He describes the painting over of moldy ceiling tiles every few months, developing respiratory problems and being punished for speaking out about poor conditions. Robinson describes how it was normal for correctional officers to have to attend award ceremonies or other political events during their personal time or be written up at work for petty offenses.
“You had officers eating for $1.73/day for a 16 hour shift while political appointees are going out to lunch daily and ordering in. How is that possible?” said Robinson.
Robinson finished his statement with a plea to the Sheriff and County Freeholders, “You have to treat officers with respect! Treat them as professionals. Treat them right. If you expect excellence you have to provide excellence.”
While the Freeholders and County Sheriff had no comment for the public at the March 12th meeting, Sheriff Nolan has recently made public statements about the staffing concerns.
“They’re negotiating for a better contract – it might not be malicious but it’s misinformed,” Nolan said in reference to the FOP’s requests for additional staff.
Sheriff Nolan claims the FOP has a political agenda, citing their endorsement of his opponent, Richard Harron for Sheriff in 2017.
“If we find that we need more manpower, I’ll approach the board of freeholders with that request.” he said.
As of March 15th, Sheriff Nolan has not made that request.
EDITOR’S NOTE: According to one source within the jail, the total overtime hours for officers at the County Jail, for the entire year, was 4,600 hours in 2018. They claim they are on pace to hit 24,000 hours of overtime this year unless something changes. We were not able to verify this independently.