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WAAY 31 I-TEAM: Pay for North Alabama jailers coming up short

The WAAY 31 I-TEAM takes an in-depth look into why counties are paying local corrections officers less money, why there's a disparity in pay and what's happening to fix the problem.

Posted: Sep 26, 2019 5:45 PM
Updated: Sep 26, 2019 7:03 PM

They’re locked in to low pay while keeping accused criminals locked behind bars. When it comes to their paychecks, detention officers in local jails are getting less money than their law enforcement counterparts. It's a problem in North Alabama and nationwide.

Early in his law enforcement career, Donny Shaw earned some of his pay as a reserve deputy working in the Madison County Jail. "I saw a little bit of the stress that they have to deal with," Shaw told WAAY 31.

Before criminals go to state and federal prisons, they typically go to county jails first.

Detention officers can spend twelve hours a day or longer with accused killers, crooks and drug dealers. "So, you're constantly having to be on guard when you're working in the jail. And it can be very stressful."

Wrapping up his career with the Madison County Sheriff's Office, Shaw is president of the Huntsville-Madison County Fraternal Order of Police. Shaw is vocal about what he calls an urgent need to pay jail corrections officers more money.

"We would just call as the FOP for government agencies to recognize this and give them pay adjustments,” he said. "It's not only Madison County, but it's our surrounding counties and across the state."

"Our men and women deal with the worst of the worst," Brent Patterson told WAAY 31. He’s the public information officer for the Madison County Jail. Patterson says detention officers' pay is too low.

"On the lower end of 30,000, on the lower end of $30,000," Patterson told us.

Right now, there are about 170 detention officers in Madison County overseeing up to 1,100 inmates. Patterson points to the problem of relatively low pay in local lockups leading to low morale and high turnover.

"It brings on a hardship,” he said. “When you've got people moving on to better employment, better wages, it puts a strain on the employees who are here now."

Across the Tennessee Valley, it's the same problem. In Morgan County, Sheriff Ron Puckett is highlighting the disparity in pay. Deputies start out at nearly $16 an hour. For officers working in the jail, it's under $12.

"And they are -- they feel like they're worth anybody else with that kind of salary at other agencies,” Patterson said. “We want competitive wages."

The most recent Alabama Wage and Salary Survey shows deputies throughout the state starting out anywhere from $12 to $16 an hour.

For corrections officers, it's $10 to $13.

It's not just entry-level jailers feeling the financial pinch.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says Alabama's average pay last year for detention officers was less than $37,000 a year. The national average is nearly $50,000.

"There's got to be something out there that can be done to increase our wages here in our jail facility," Patterson said. He insists detention officers deserve more.

"You want to be paid for what you're worth. And our men and women are worth a lot here,” he said. “We appreciate what they do. And with the time and training you put into them, we want to hold onto them."

"There are people out there and their calling is to be detention officers," Donny Shaw said.

He thinks local governments should help answer that call with better pay. Shaw says community support would make a big difference. "Express that they would like for the detention officers, corrections officers to receive a pay adjustment that's comparable to their law enforcement counterparts."

Local corrections officers aren't leaving their jobs just for other positions in law enforcement. The Fraternal Order of Police told us jailers' pay is so low, and many leave for jobs in retail, manufacturing and construction.

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