Safety should be No. 1 priority for jail

Lyon County Sheriff Eric Wallen and Jail Administrator Brad Marks went before the board of commissioners on Tuesday to request approval to hire more jail staff.

Wallen and Marks described a situation of being between a rock and a hard place. The Minnesota Department of Corrections recommends certain staff levels. Wallen said the jail requires three staff members at all times — two correctional officers and one sergeant. As of this week, Wallen said the jail meets the state’s staff level requirements

Meanwhile, the jail is facing severe staff turnover. Some of it is due to advancement within the Sheriff’s Department. That’s a good sign.

The bad part, however, is that the vacancies are creating increases in overtime. Lyon County Administrator Loren Stomberg reported the jail had $67,00 in overtime in 2018. As of September 2019, the jail had $52,000 in overtime out of a budgeted $55,000. Overtime means the county is spending more to run the jail. But it also means jail staff members are working longer hours.

Back in April, Marks spoke to the Marshall Noon Rotary Club and told them the number of inmates spending time inside the jail is rising. He said the increase are largely due to mental illness and drug and alcohol dependency issues.

In 1996, Marks said 826 people spent time in the jail and served 9,563 days. In 2016, 987 people served time in the jail and the total confinement days jumped to 11,572. According to Marks, the average daily population was 26.13 in 1996 and today it’s 46.22.

The Lyon County Jail is not a large facility when compared to jails in metropolitan areas. So that means a lot less violent offenders serving time. However, the Lyon County Jail still faces its share of challenges. Mental illness, by itself, presents many challenges — some of them can lead to dangerous situations.

Safety should be the No. 1 consideration when making decisions about the jail. Wallen and Marks should be given all the tools possible to keep jail staff safe while overseeing the jail population. Some of these jail inmates can potentially have dangerous tendencies.

Commissioner Steve Ritter voted in favor of hiring one additional staff member, but he was quoted in the Independent of being irritated with the Department of Corrections telling the County how to run its jail without more funding. We can appreciate that frustration.

Commissioner Charlie Sanow had doubts hiring more staff will fix the turnover rates issue and voted no. We can understand Sanow’s concern as well. But we agree with Ritter’s statement: “I would support one (officer), and see where we go from there.”

A big part of the board’s job is to be frugal with taxpayers’ money. However, the safety of jail staff members should also be a top priority.

We urge the board and other county officials to keep monitoring the situation going forward.