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Nov. 29, 2020

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Clark County Jail hosts jobs expo, aims to fill vacancies amid growing inmate population

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter
5 Photos
Zach Nygaard, left, speaks with a deputy in a socially distanced seating area during a recruitment event for Clark County Jail corrections deputies Tuesday evening at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds.
Zach Nygaard, left, speaks with a deputy in a socially distanced seating area during a recruitment event for Clark County Jail corrections deputies Tuesday evening at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds. (Nathan Howard for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Walking up a dimly lit path to the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds, Zach Nygaard said he wanted to attend the corrections deputy career expo because he’s always been passionate about “serving in the line of duty.”

“My family has a military background; they’re first responders. I’ve grown up around it, and they seem happy with their choice. There’s no pressure to do something similar, but I’ve always wanted to,” said Nygaard, a 25-year-old Ridgefield resident.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office held the expo Tuesday night. Thirty-two people signed up to attend, and about that many showed up.

Clark County Jail Chief Ric Bishop said there are 128 corrections positions in total. Right now, he’s looking to fill a dozen corrections deputies vacancies, he said.

The need for more corrections deputies is immediate. The county put a hold on hiring new employees across most departments when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the state. However, the jail recently got permission to fill the vacancies, and in-person recruitments began Sept. 26 with another event at the fairgrounds.

The county permitted the increase in staff partly due to the increasing inmate population at the Clark County Jail.

Earlier this year, general criteria were established for the types of crimes and cases assessed for potential release into pretrial supervision. The criteria includes nonviolent cases, such as drug and property crimes. No cases involving sex offenses are reviewed, and generally, no domestic violence cases meet the criteria.

In mid-March, the facility housed 313 inmates, a low not seen by Bishop since 1985. The releases allowed the jail to avoid an outbreak, unlike other facilities nationwide, the jail chief said.

But last week, Bishop said the population continues to creep up. Nearly 450 inmates were housed there Friday.

Criminal justice officials, who have been working to keep down the population, agree that something needs to be done to once again reduce the total number of inmates. They met in mid-September to explore solutions.

The consensus at the end of the meeting was that the sheriff’s office would begin filling positions left vacant since March. Once it has the employees, the current course of action calls for the use of the county’s Jail Work Center, a 100-bed, minimum-security facility that remains open but has not been used for housing for about five months. Not all of the vacancies need to be filled to use the work center.

Bishop said he and other jail officials will have a work session with the county Dec. 2 to discuss the work center’s possible use, as well as other jail-related matters.

Recruitment efforts

The roughly 30 people interested in pursuing a career inside the Clark County Jail gathered in a large room at the event center, which has also been used for the county’s jury selection due to its spaciousness.

Seated in socially distanced, hard plastic chairs, the attendees watched slideshows and listened to speakers. Deputies shared their on-the-job experiences, and background investigators informed attendees of the rigorous task of checking their personal and employment histories, which can include speaking with neighbors, according to Corrections Deputy Lemar Elliott.

Andrew Stimson attended the expo with a friend — who declined to give his name but said he works in security and has long held an interest in a law enforcement career — because the job seems like an interesting opportunity.

But Stimson, 20, of Battle Ground said if he were to be hired, it would serve as a holdover until he’s old enough to pursue becoming a professional pilot.

“It’s not my future aspiration, but I could see having a positive experience from it,” Stimson said.

Such events typically include mock interviews. However, due to COVID-19, the face-to-face interviews have been replaced with computers that people can use to apply right away.

To achieve their hiring goal, recruiters within the sheriff’s office are running events, such as the one at the fairgrounds, and connecting with groups in the community — although, the latter efforts have been curtailed because of the pandemic.

Corrections Deputy Gabriela Benavides said she joined the recruiting team because she’s a social person who likes to chat, particularly about her role at the jail, and encourage people to challenge themselves with a career in law enforcement.

Benavides said her background helps her relate to people when she’s recruiting. She grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, served in the military and attended college.

“I’ve also lived in several states, so I can draw on all my accomplishments and experiences and really get to know people. That’s important (when recruiting); there are many people who are curious and have a lot of questions,” Benavides said.

Officials said the most frequently asked questions are typically about the hiring process, such as what tests and interviews will be required, opportunities for promotions and benefits. Starting salary for a corrections deputy is an hourly wage of $26.59. Benefits include medical, dental and vision health care plans; paid days off and sick leave; and retirement benefits tied to the state’s Public Safety Employees’ Retirement System.

Benavides said she focuses on an applicant’s professionalism and enthusiasm. She would like to see more people apply and attend the hiring events, she said, and believes working in the jail is a means to helping the community. She noted the jail’s re-entry programs and sense of contribution she feels when she sees a former inmate who has changed their life for the better.

“We’re looking for people who are tough and firm but also compassionate,” said Bishop, the jail chief. “If people are going to victimize our community, we’ll find a place inside the jail for them. If they want the tools to break the cycle of recidivism, we’ve got re-entry programs. We have over 80 community partners who are out there willing and able to help people get back on their feet and break that cycle.”

A stressful job

Working inside a correctional facility can be a dangerous job. Correctional officers have a unique responsibility in that they are tasked with maintaining safety in settings with significant numbers of gang members, people with mental health diagnoses and substance users.

Multiple studies have found correctional officers experience high levels of stress, burnout and a variety of other mental health-related consequences, according to a 2017 U.S. Justice Department report. The report says studies have found between 22 and 35 percent of correctional officers admit to high levels of stress.

“The impact of negative physical and mental health outcomes for correctional officers can have deleterious effects on the wider institution. Staff shortages and officer absences from work can create a cycle whereby low officer-to-inmate ratios and high turnover in officer staffing threaten the effective implementation of a correctional facility’s security mandates,” the report reads.

Benavides said longevity in employment isn’t something recruiters can determine during the interview process. Bishop said it’s not a focal point when considering applicants.

The jail chief acknowledged that some employees use the corrections deputy position as a stepping stone for a career in criminal justice. As long as the deputies show up and perform well, the sheriff’s office will help them advance their goals, he said.

Nygaard expressed that sentiment, saying of a job at the jail: “It’s not my first choice. But I’ve heard it’s a good way to get your foot in the door.”