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Clarke Sheriff issues dire warning about jail, if commissioners don't increase funding

https://www.accgov.com/207/Additional-Jail-Information

Too few staff, injuries to guards, and moldy bread are among the conditions plaguing the Clarke County Jail.

Continued understaffing at the Clarke County Jail is causing problems, and conditions could deteriorate unless Athens-Clarke County commissioners increase funding for the Sheriff’s Office.

That was the message from Clarke County Sheriff John Q. Williams to local lawmakers at a meeting on Tuesday. Williams spoke in front of commissioners as part of the county’s yearly budget process, where he gave them a dire warning.

"I'm telling you, if we don't get help from you all to pay our deputies better, we're going to have situations just like in Fulton County," Williams said. "It's coming. It's not a threat. "

If you want people dying in jail, keep having us be short staffed.
Clarke County Sheriff John Q. Williams

The Fulton County Jail has seen dozens of inmate deaths in recent years.

Williams: Pay inequity for Sheriff's deputies contributes to the problem

Williams says understaffing at the Clarke County Jail is caused at least in part by low pay. Williams has chided commissioners in the past for paying sheriff’s deputies less than their counterparts on the Athens-Clarke County Police Department, despite having the same training and certification.

A sometimes-impassioned Williams entreated commissioners to raise salaries for his deputies. That’s been a regular request from the sheriff since he took office in 2021.

Currently, a sheriff’s deputy receives a starting salary of just over $48,600. That’s about $5,100 less than a new police officer. Sheriff’s officials estimate that paying deputies the same as ACC police officers would cost between $650,000 and $780,000 per year.

Williams told commissioners that his department remains severely understaffed, with some 40 positions vacant. And, he contended, his office was losing deputies to higher-paying agencies, including ACC Police. He also told commissioners that bringing deputies’ salaries up to the level of ACCPD’s saves the county money compared to paying for massive amounts of mandatory overtime.

"When you have lieutenants that are making overtime pay, we can fund two positions fully for what a lieutenant makes on overtime," Williams told commissioners.

Understaffing causes concerns for inmates and staff

The understaffing sometimes requires up to 60 hours a month of mandatory overtime for his deputies, Williams said. And, he predicted, the number of arrests – and inmates – is going to rise.

"We don't have the staffing to open up other pods," he said. "We're going to have people sleeping on floors. That's the only way that we can maintain."

Even with deputies working overtime, there are still staffing deficiencies, the sheriff said.

"We should have two people at least working each unit and at most, we usually have one," Williams said. "So when you have one deputy or detention officer and you have 60 to 75 jail residents that are in that same unit with them, they get bold."

That has led to three incidents in recent months that have put deputies and detention officers in the hospital. According to the sheriff, one of those injured guards may not be able to return to work.

Raw food and moldy bread: Sheriff urges changes to food program

The Sheriff also urged commissioners to make changes to the jail’s food program. Currently, inmates receive food prepared at the Clarke County Correctional Institution, which houses medium and minimum security offenders. But, Williams says, that food hasn’t been up to par.

"Just last week we had food that came in that was raw," he told commissioners. "Just this morning we had bread that was brought that was moldy. We cannot continue like that."

Just this morning we had bread that was brought that was moldy. We cannot continue like that.
Clarke County Sheriff John Q. Williams

Instead, Williams is offering two options. First, the jail could hire a food service coordinator and use trustee inmates to prepare the food. Or, the jail could outsource food services to an outside vendor, something many correctional facilities in the state already do. That would save some $150,000 - $170,000 per year according to the Sheriff's Office.

Williams’ pitch to commissioners is a part of the county’s sometimes lengthy budget process which started in earnest late last month when Mayor Kelly Girtz submitted his proposed budget to commissioners. Commissioners will hear from officials like Williams, as well as the public – and each other – in an array of meetings this month. Commissioners are expected to vote on a final budget on June 5.

Martin Matheny is WUGA's Program Director and a host and producer of our local news program 'Athens News Matters.' He started at WUGA in 2012 as a part-time classical music host and still hosts WUGA's longest-running local program 'Night Music' which is heard on WUGA and GPB Classical. He lives in Normaltown with his wife, Shaye and dog, Murphy.