The Buffalo News: "Another Voice: Unrealistic minimum staffing requirements are the problem at local jails"

Date: August 21, 2022

By: Colleen Kristich |August 21, 2022


Recent Buffalo News reporting claims that Erie County’s jails are understaffed, when in reality the opposite is true.

Nationwide, there are approximately 25 correctional officers for every 100 incarcerated persons. As of late 2021, upstate New York jails had 66 officers per 100 incarcerated persons, more than two and a half times the national average.

Erie County is an outlier even by New York State  standards, with 93 officers per 100 incarcerated people, 42% more than the upstate average. Our staffing levels are significantly higher than comparable upstate urban counties, such as Albany (65), Monroe (66) and Onondaga (71).
Numbers don’t lie: Erie County jails are overstaffed.

Yet, per The News' article, forced overtime remains an issue. Why?

The State Commission of Correction (SCOC) requires jails to maintain minimum staffing levels based on factors including the maximum capacity of each jail (collectively, 1,400 incarcerated people in Erie County), regardless of how many people are being held in the jails (around 750, or less, for the last two years).  

Forced overtime is a result of these bloated minimums rather than any actual understaffing. Throwing money at the problem by attempting to hire more staff will increase our correctional spending without addressing the root cause of the problem, effectively wasting tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. County residents deserve increased investments in proven community safety strategies like youth development, violence prevention and community-based mental and substance use treatment instead. 

Jails across New York are in the same boat: half-empty but fully staffed facilities that require correctional officers to fulfill Orwellian tasks, clocking sleepless nights back-to-back, missing time with their families, eroding their health, just to stand for hours watching a few incarcerated people go about their day. It’s ludicrous and expensive. The issue has been worsening for decades, and state government has begun to take notice.

New SCOC regulations were proposed last year to give counties flexibility in determining their minimum staffing requirements, which would alleviate the need for so much overtime. If the rules are not changed this year, state legislation could accomplish the same goal.

 However, even without state action, Garcia can at least attempt to fix the problem of excessive minimum staffing requirements by consolidating underpopulated housing units at both jails and placing empty ones out of service.  He can then apply to the SCOC for a reduced maximum jail capacity. The reduced capacity and fewer housing units could reduce the SCOC-calculated minimum staffing requirement. If the SCOC approves the changes, the result will be fewer assignments needing coverage each shift, and therefore less forced overtime – without adding more officers. 

State and county governments have the tools they need to solve jail staffing problems by addressing the root cause: a bloated and outdated minimum staffing requirement. 

Read the full op-ed on the Buffalo News' website, here