When an opioid substance sickened dozens of Allen County Jail employees last week, Bill Thompson took note.
Thompson is the assistant chief of the St. Joseph County Police Department, which runs the jail in South Bend. The 833-bed facility is understaffed, like many other jails in Indiana, Thompson said, and he isn't sure how his facility would handle a similar situation.
“That got everyone's attention,” he said. “That would be an all-hands-on-deck deal here.”
The St. Joseph County Jail has never had a problem that would affect that many workers so quickly, Thompson said.
Staffing levels at the Allen County Jail took a hit early last week when 35 of its workers were treated over two days for exposure to the drug. Confinement officers found the substance Monday on a piece of brown paper at the jail, after an inmate tried to use an electrical outlet to light it. Workers began reporting symptoms including headaches, tightness in the chest and other reactions associated with exposure to opioids.
Tests of the substance revealed the presence of opioids, and Allen County Sheriff David Gladieux said it was likely fentanyl. The substance, he said, was probably mailed to the jail.
About 40 inmates from the jail's D block were evacuated while a cleanup crew decontaminated the area. Sheriff's department spokesman Steve Stone said inmates and workers returned Tuesday.
Staffing is often a concern for jail administrators, and the gap between the number of inmates and jailers can be wide.
At the local jail last week, there were about 760 inmates. Staffing levels range from 21 to 34 employees, depending on the time of day, Gladieux said. That means the inmate-to-employee ratio at the Allen County Jail could be as high as 36 to 1.
“It's been an ongoing problem,” Gladieux said. “I'd like to see more staff.”
In South Bend, the jail houses around 650 inmates and staffing levels range from 21 to 25 employees, depending on the time of day. The inmate-to-employee ratio there is about 31 to 1.
“Like everybody else, we'd like it to be higher,” Thompson said of the number of employees. “We probably have 10 to 12 vacancies.”
The number of employees at jails can differ based on the type and size of the facility, the number of inmates and other factors, according to Indiana law and guidelines from professional organizations.
State law leaves staffing to local officials, mandating that “there shall be sufficient jail personnel” to ensure the safety of workers and inmates.
A resource guide for jails from the U.S. Department of Justice states federal law requires “adequate staffing for the protection of inmates.” Local officials should base staff sizes on factors such as inmate population, jail mission, the layout of the facility and methods of inmate supervision.