COVINGTON -- The Newton County Sheriff's Office has laid off 12 employees and left 11.5 positions unfilled due to recent budget cuts.
A total of 23.5 positions -- one part-time -- have been affected. The detention center has been affected most, with all 12 laid off employees coming from that department. In addition, 4.5 vacant positions will remain unfilled, for a total loss of 16.5 employees.
No layoffs were made in the law enforcement division, which includes street patrols, though seven vacant positions will remain unfilled.
Capt. Sammy Banks, detention center administrator, said the staffing shortage is presenting challenges to maintaining the safety of the overcrowded jail, with officers having to perform dual duties.
Ideally, a staff of 24 per shift is needed to run the jail. Howver, it is being operated with 14 to 15 per shift.
The jail has a capacity of 535, but the jail is housing 623. The extra inmates are sleeping in beds on the floor. Parts of the facility "looks like a homeless shelter," Banks said. A 56-bed housing unit has never been opened in the seven years since the facility was built because there is not enough staff to run it, Banks said.
Of most concern with the additional staffing cuts is the ratio of prisoners to officers. The maximum security section of the jail, which contains the most violent criminals including murderers and rapists, is at full capacity of 124, with an additional 38 sleeping on the floor. That's 162 maximum security inmates under the supervision of two officers per shift, Banks said.
"Trying to run a facility with below minimum staffing is very unsafe," Banks said. "This is the highest liability the county has. This will bankrupt the county if we have a major lawsuit and it's awarded."
The NCSO budget cuts were reduced from a proposed 14 percent to 5 percent by adopting the rollback millage rate, but, "We were already understaffed," Banks said.
"If they did not adopt the rollback rate, we could not operate a safe facility," he said.
Inmate road crews that pick up trash along the roadways and take out trash and perform other cleaning duties at county facilities will be cut back because officers that supervise them are needed at the jail. Detention officers are also now having to work in the transport division, transporting inmates to mental health facilities or delivering juveniles to the detention facility in Sandersville, two hours away.
If necessary, the facility will be put on lockdown, meaning only one inmate will be moved at a time, he said.
"The safety of the officers, for them to have a safe place to work and go home at night, is my and the sheriff's No. 1 priority. The safety of the community is very secure. No one has to worry about anyone from this facility or from Stallings Street getting into the community and jeopardizing their safety," he said. Stallings Street is the site of the NCSO's work release program.
Banks said there has been criticism from the community regarding Sheriff Ezell Brown's attempts to protect the NCSO's budget from cuts faced by other departments. But the Sheriff's Office can't be compared to other county departments, because its staff works 12-hour shifts versus eight and it runs 24 hours, seven days a week, he said.
He invited anyone interested in touring the jail to call the Sheriff's Office.
"I beg anyone who wants to, come out and look. You're going to be shocked. This is real life. It's not 'Cops' on TV where you just see segments. This is real life and its 24/7," he said. "We have some of the most dedicated officers in this community, and they're putting their lives at risk. We will continue to do our jobs. We're sworn to protect the citizens of this county and our loyalty lies with the sheriff."