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Asbell: ‘Critical’ Staff Shortage Straining Peoria County Jail

210809 Sheriff Brian Asbell.jpg
Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell

While an overcrowding issue at the Peoria County Jail resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has eased somewhat, a staff shortage is straining the facility's operations.

Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell says his office currently has about 20 full-time vacancies in the corrections division, and the average daily population of 250 inmates pushes the depleted work force to the limit.

“We're trying to find incentives for this job. It's a hard job; it really is,” said Asbell. “It's one that's often not talked about in the criminal justice conversation, but it's one of the most necessary jobs out there — and (how) we do it does affect how many people we can bring to the jail.”

Asbell said the staff shortage forced his office to use 96 forced eight-hour overtime shifts in July. He said some guards have been working close to 80 hours a week, and it’s been going on for more than a year.

“It's having a terrible effect on their family life. You just can't sustain this work for that many hours,” said Asbell. “You come in for eight hours and 16 hours later, you're going home, and the fatigue leads to more absenteeism. Guys are just the so tired that they're calling off sick, which creates more overtime. It's just it's so connected.

“If we could just keep the population size where we're at around that 250 mark, that would be wonderful — if we could condense the population. I’ve said critical, but I think we're even past that critical point where we can't sustain this much longer with the staff that we have.”

Asbell said he has been working with the Peoria County Board to find ways attract people to the vacancies. He noted the average population of 250 acts as almost double because the jail is still considered a COVID-19 outbreak facility and cannot house two inmates in a single cell.

“Two years ago, I would have been clicking my heels to have 250; there were weeks when we averaged 450-500 and sometimes 600 in the summer,” the sheriff said, noting the facility must go 28 consecutive days with no positivity to have the outbreak designation removed. “We have to try to mitigate every risk for any spread of this virus because it's obviously still in our community.”

Asbell said law enforcement agencies everywhere are having a hard time attracting job seekers, particularly on the corrections side. He said jails have traditionally served as a sort of training ground for prospective police officers.

“We’ve lost a lot of employees to police departments to fill their vacancies. But the bad thing is, and I have never seen this to this level, the limited amount of applications coming in,” said Asbell. “We're just not seeing applicants (who) want to go into this profession, or the ones that are, because of all the vacancies on police departments, they're skipping this step. They're not starting in corrections; they're going right to a police department and starting on the street.”

With the Illinois Department of Corrections having resumed detainee transfers that had been on hold during the pandemic, Asbell said the jail has been able to move about 40 inmates to state prisons over the last month.

“It’s been well over a year, really since last April, that we've had continuous DOC transfers,” he said. “We got up to 80-90 detainees during the height of things, but now it seems to be more regular and we're down right around a dozen right now.”

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