Staffing shortages pressure jail

FRONT ROYAL – The Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail continues to struggle with severe staffing shortages among corrections officers and health care professionals.

Members of the jail authority’s finance and personnel committee heard two top administrators report little or no progress Thursday in finding qualified applicants for the many vacancies at the jail.

Superintendent William Wilson said the jail has openings for 23 corrections officers, almost one fifth of the 125 that constitute a full staff. The 23 vacancies represent a slight improvement from last month when Wilson reported 25 correctional officer vacancies, plus two others out on extended medical leave. Three corrections officers were hired in December and January.

The vacant positions are being covered through overtime paid for through the regular overtime budget and money obtained from salary savings left by the unfilled vacancies.

Wilson told the committee he wants to relieve some of the pressure on the existing staff by hiring two maintenance workers who would officially be classified as corrections officers.

In doing so, Wilson said, the new employees will be able to fill in as corrections officers in performing certain tasks such as inmate transport and escort. They would also be able to move more freely around the jail instead of needing a corrections officer to accompany them in some parts of the building. But their primary jobs would be maintenance.

Wilson said representatives from the jail will be attending a job fair in the area and are trying to organize other initiatives aimed at recruiting current students and new graduates from Shenandoah University and Lord Fairfax Community College.

Other, more established correctional facilities and law enforcement agencies are interested in the same pool of applicants that RSW, which opened in July 2014, relies on to fill its vacancies.

“We have to compete with other jurisdictions, and we’re new,” Wilson said in an interview after the meeting.

Penny Holt, the jail’s director of nursing, told the committee that a nurse position and a mental health counselor position remain unfilled.

“We’re still trying to find nurses,” Holt told the committee of a problem that has plagued the jail for at least a year.

Holt told the committee at its last meeting that the jail’s medical services have been fully staffed for only about six to eight weeks since her hiring in February 2015. She said this left a “big vulnerability” on weekends when more people are admitted to the facility and jailed addicts are at higher risk of going through withdrawal.

A man charged with possession of narcotics and being held without bond died in the jail on Feb. 13, a Saturday, from causes that have yet to be determined. Wilson has said he is awaiting the results of a toxicology report from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Holt refused to comment on the inmate’s death in an interview after the meeting.

Asked whether she considered the current staff openings at the jail a crisis, Holt replied, “We’re managing.”

She added that the only gap in the daily nurse shift is from midnight until 6 a.m., and emergency coverage is available 24 hours, seven days a week.

Wilson told the committee that one applicant for the nursing position was interviewed last week but “she withdrew her application.”

The jail also interviewed two applicants for the mental health counselor job, but one of them lacked the required master’s degree and the other withdrew her application after her current employer gave her a raise.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com