Fairfax County’s work release program has been shuttered since March 2020 due to the pandemic. But when the transitional program restarts, the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office is unsure how it will be able to manage it.

Faced with an uncharacteristically high vacancy rate of 11.4%, the sheriff’s office says it’s changing how it operates to make basic functions possible. The office is tasked with operating the detention center, providing security for the courthouse and courtrooms, and serving the civil law process.

“Whenever the health department recommends that we can safely restart work release, we need to evaluate if we have sufficient staff to actually restart it,” said Andrea Ceisler, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office.

To manage, the office has redeployed staff from other areas to the Adult Detention Center and eliminated assignments to specialized units like the fugitive task force and gang unit. Hiring is ongoing, but the number of applications has dipped.

“Even with mandatory overtime, our squads are short-staffed,” Ceisler said. She says the office is also turning down new requests to take part in programs by community groups and schools.

The order to shut down the work release program — which allows some inmates to work and take part in community programs as they transition out of incarceration — came from the Fairfax County Health Department. It’s unclear when it will restart, but the decision will be guided by when community transmission levels are reduced from substantial to moderate or low.

Over the last three years, the number of inmates enrolled in the county’s work-release program has decreased significantly.

In 2017, 112 inmates were enrolled and 44 successfully completed the remainder of their sentence while in the program. In 2019, just 48 inmates were enrolled, though 32 completed the remainder of their sentence.

Over the last 10 years, the need for more staff has also grown — particularly at the detention center.

Cell blocks that can house 20 inmates typically hold 10 inmates, a configuration that dramatically reduces the number of fights and encourages more compliance with rules. An increase in training — including crisis intervention and mental health first aid — also takes off staff from their line of work.

“Should the pandemic end, we will have to evaluate staffing in the Alternative Incarceration Branch where the staff-to-inmate ratio is much smaller for programs such as Work Release, the Community Labor Force and STAR, our addiction treatment and recovery program,” Ceisler said. “For the safety and security of our staff, inmates and the people who live and work in the county, sufficient staffing in the Adult Detention Center must remain a top priority.”

Public safety and law enforcement departments have reported high vacancy rates nationally. Staffing has declined for the past eight years, with 86% of departments across the country reporting a shortage last year.

Major Tamara Gold, the sheriff’s office assistant chief, told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors last month that the problem is expected to intensify in the coming months.

The office’s staff are paid between 2.5 and 7.5% less than equivalent positions in the Fairfax County Police Department. Many staff has left the office for employment with FCPD, which is grappling with its own staff shortage.

The sheriff’s office did resume its community labor force program earlier this year, where inmates work outdoors in crews of five under the supervision of an armed deputy sheriff. Crews complete landscaping, emergency snow removal, litter pick up, and other tasks.

Photo via Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office/Facebook

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