What was sold as a stopgap solution to the Calhoun County Jail crowding problem is turning out to be more of a slick sales job than a tangible breakthrough.
Back in early July, Calhoun County Commissioner Tim Hodges announced that he’d arranged a meeting between Sheriff Matt Wade and state Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, that resulted in a $500,000 grant to help with crowding at the jail.
At the time, Hodges was two weeks away from a runoff election against Danny Shears on July 17. We can’t speak to Hodges’ motives, but notifying jail workers that the money might be used to increase their salaries certainly didn’t hurt Hodges’ chances at re-election.
At last Thursday’s Calhoun County Commission meeting, more than a month after winning re-election, Hodges and the commission said the money won’t be used for salary increases.
The revelation came when jail Lt. LaTonya Chames asked commissioners if the money was still going to be used to give jailers a raise as had been discussed.
Chames said Hodges had visited the jail and promised to secure the money for raises.
“I guess that has changed,” she said after Thursday’s meeting.
Commission Chairman Lee Patterson said the stipulations of the grant say the money can’t be used for raises.
Hodges said after the meeting that neither he nor the commission had ever promised raises were coming, but he said the “ultimate goal” for the commission is to get a pay increase for the jailers.
Maybe the word “promise” was never used, but in the weeks before the runoff, the possibility of a raise for jailers wasn’t put in terms of uncertainty. In fact, Hodges even suggested a specific amount for a raise. Here’s what he told a Star reporter at the time:
“One of our big needs is correctional officers and jailers. Try to get their pay adjusted up a little bit and get it more in line of possibly raising $2 an hour or something like that to get it more in line to be competitive with other jails.”
He didn’t use the words “ultimate goal” and, when there’s the assurance that a $500,000 lifeline is on the way, county jailers understandably were left with the impression that at least some portion of the money would be used for raises.
It’s a demoralizing blow to a department that, on average, is outnumbered 90-1 by inmates and has to deal daily with the most dangerous people in our community.
“It’s heartbreaking and defeating,” said one Facebook commenter, who claimed to work at the jail.
The commission said last Thursday that around $150,000 will go toward a day-release program for up to 150 inmates, which will help relieve some of the overcrowding. Commissioners had no specific plans yet for what will happen with the other $350,000.
This leads to a few questions:
When did the commission know the grant money couldn’t be used for raises?
Was it before or after Hodges’ runoff election?
When was the commission planning to tell the jailers that no raise is coming from the $500,000?
What efforts are being made to secure other funding for a raise, or is that now off the table?
The $500,000 was never going to be a final solution to the jail’s overcrowding problem. That will take a combination of factors, including alternative sentencing and the construction of a new, bigger, modern jail.
But for Sheriff Wade and the jailers who heard Hodges tout his successful efforts to secure additional funding, that $500,000 represented hope and room to breathe in the form of better compensation for the work being done.
You can only dash a people’s hope so many times. And these men and women, in particular, deserve better.