CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA)– A “perfect storm” led to a critical situation at the Champaign County jails, according to Sheriff Dustin Heuerman.
On Monday night, WCIA showed you a letter he sent to the Champaign County Board.
In a one-on-one with our Target 3 investigative team Tuesday, Sheriff Heuerman said there’s a major worker shortage and staff and inmates are concerned for their safety.
Heuerman expects to be down ten correctional officers by the end of July. He said it’s created the highest number of vacancies ever at the jails.
The concerns outlined in the letter are not new, according to the sheriff, but penning these three specific recommendations for the county to take action right away is a first.
“Let’s face it we’re living in a more violent environment now,” Heuerman said.
In the letter sent to the county board Thursday, Heuerman detailed several incidents in the last year, including at least two attacks on officers.
“They don’t work in this environment every day,” he said in reference to board members. “…And I want to make sure they fully realize the extent of things that are going on at the county jail.”
He says staff and inmate safety has been exacerbated by the pandemic, the staffing issue, and the condition of the two jail facilities.
He wrote out proposed solutions in black and white.
First, he recommended budgeting in a $5,000 sign-on bonus for each new officer.
“$2,500 upon successful completion of field training and $2,500 after fulfilling their three-year contract with the Sheriff’s Office,” Heuerman wrote.
In the interview Tuesday, he added, “If you’ve listened to any kind of advertisements for jobs lately, everybody is offering a sign-on bonus.”
Secondly, he asked the board to evaluate correctional officer salaries.
Right now, Champaign County correctional officers’ salaries are comparable to pay at similar facilities, according to Heuerman, but he said the pay doesn’t cut it when it goes up against other opportunities in champaign-Urbana.
“…And then you take into account the job of a correctional officer and the safety and security that correctional officer is required to maintain,” he added. “The salary is really not where it should be.”
Third and finally, Heuerman requested a commitment to closing the downtown jail, along with a clear timeline.
He said he believes staff and inmates won’t be able to feel much safer until that happens, and millions are put into renovating and expanding the satellite jail.
The sheriff said maintaining minimum safety standards is the best he can do right now, and that may not last.
“But it’s really expensive to meet those right now, and I don’t know for how much longer we can be meeting those needs,” he explained.
It’s a conversation that began with Heuerman’s predecessor Dan Walsh. Nearly a decade later, no proposals have been successful, Heuerman added.
“It’s important that the county board take action now, so we’re not forced to close unexpectedly by the federal government or a civil lawsuit that comes across, or by a severe injury of a correctional officer or an inmate,” he emphasized.
In the long run, Heuerman said having everything under one roof would be more cost-effective.
So, what could all of this cost?
Sign-on bonuses would require $5,000 per the ten current vacancies ($50,000) upfront.
Heuerman said Champaign County Executive Darlene Kloeppel has plans to ask the board for a salary study. Kloeppel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As for the jail, Heuerman said Champaign County still has access to millions in federal COVID-19 relief from the American Rescue Plan. The sheriff submitted requests to put some of that money into consolidating the two facilities. These funds have to be used for covid-specific costs, so they won’t cover the entire project.
He estimated the Sheriff’s Office can consolidate and move to the satellite jail to $15- to $20-million. Heuerman said a couple of years ago the total cost of renovations was quoted at $50-million.
All of this will be considered by the board in August.