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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane County approves hiring more nurses, guards for jail

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of jail guards who will be hired. This story has been updated to include the correct number of guards.

Help is coming to the staff at the aging Spokane County Jail in 2015, as county commissioners signed off Tuesday on a plan to hire four new nurses and 12 jail guards within the next year.

John McGrath, commander of the jail, pitched the deal as a way of bringing on desperately needed employees – without raising taxes – to a workforce that racked up $2.4 million in overtime pay in 2013.

“Looking at these positions, versus what we’re spending in overtime in these areas, we roughly spend about $2.5 million a year on what could be better spent on full-time employees,” McGrath told commissioners.

McGrath’s numbers show the county last year paid $8,000 in overtime for each of the county’s roughly 300 workers employed in detention services at the jail and the Geiger Corrections Center in Airway Heights. That includes $175,000 in overtime pay to nurses, who are receiving hiring priority in the jail’s three-year plan to bring on an additional 34 employees in all areas, including prisoner transport and supervision of the Geiger work crew.

County records show detention service employees have earned mounting overtime pay in the past several years as the jail population swells. In 2010, employees claimed $1.1 million in overtime when the average jail population stood at 756 inmates. Last year, when jail staff claimed more than double that amount in overtime, the jail housed 902 inmates a day.

McGrath told commissioners that hiring four nurses next year would enable the jail to staff its booking area with a medical professional at peak hours. The jail has been the target of several lawsuits in recent years alleging failures to give inmates the medication they need because of clerical errors and the refusal by workers to screen medicine brought in by relatives.

“If we wanted to move forward on that, it would help reduce some of our liabilities and provide offenders quicker services,” McGrath said. Guards are currently responsible for completing the medical screening when a nurse is not available, McGrath said, and with medical professionals completing the screening, the process would be “more intensive,” he said.

The new hires would cut the jail’s overtime budget to about $1 million next year, McGrath said. The total salary of the 20 new employees would be roughly $1.1 million, he said. Job listings have already been posted.

Commissioner Al French called the deal a “home run.”

“This is a creative use of the existing budget and the funds available,” French said.

Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn also praised jail staff for finding a solution to their personnel issues without going to voters for more money.

“I know that we’ve been challenged on staffing issues at the jail, and that can take a toll on our employees,” she said.

“It has, absolutely,” McGrath interjected.

Subsequent hires, including 11 positions in 2016 and eight in 2017, would be necessary to continue the cost-saving services the jail already has in place, McGrath said. Detention officials also briefed commissioners on the status of programs designed to save jail beds for inmates most likely to reoffend and offer alternative resolutions for those who need drug treatment or are awaiting trial for lesser crimes.

A new software system allows the jail to take a nightly “snapshot” of its population, including how long prosecutors are taking to file charges against those who are admitted to the jail, Lt. Mike Sparber said. About 64 percent of those in jail right now face felony charges, he said.

Between 70 and 75 percent of those who are arrested are charged within the 72-hour window required to hold an inmate on a felony charge, Sparber said. This is a significant improvement from 2010, when many inmates were kept for three days and released, only to be charged later and then booked back into jail requiring more work for employees, he said.

The unanimous vote from county commissioners Tuesday supporting McGrath’s request for more jail staff won’t take effect until the 2015 budget is signed later this year. But the move allows the jail to begin vetting applicants.

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