Staffing issues could keep part of a new Burke County jail closed, says the Sheriff

New Burke Co. jail may be short-staffed

MORGANTON, N.C. (WBTV) - Burke County Sheriff Steve Whisenant says the new 264-bed jail that is under construction may be ready to open in December but as many as 100 beds might be empty due to staffing issues.

‘I need at least 60 detention officer positions there to keep it safe and secure for jailers and inmates,’ he said.

In recent months, the sheriff and the county commission have not agreed on a figure. At one point just 41 positions were approved. ‘I will not open the new jail with just 41,’ said Whisnant.

Now the board has approved 54 slots in the budget for the next year but Whisenant says that is still not enough. He says 60 is the minimum needed. Even so, the sheriff says he will go forward with moving inmates into the new facility but will not use all the space.

‘Our plan is to open the jail with sufficient beds so we can house our own Burke County inmates.’ He estimates that will be close to 170 beds. That will leave many beds unused. Whisenant says that’s potential revenue that is lost.

Most jails rent out extra space to house federal and state inmates. The fees collected can be $40 a day and up per bed. He plans to keep asking the county for the extra positions but county officials say for this year, at least, the budget is set.

There is another problem, though, says Whisenant. Hiring detention officers is a tough task to begin with, he says. Commissioners did help along those lines, he believes, by raising starting pay for detention officers by 13% to more than $33,000. Still, it is tough to compete with private industry these days. ‘The economy is going well,’ he said, and added, ‘There’s just not as many people interested in a law enforcement career.’

Most of the officers at the current downtown jail will transfer to the new facility. That downtown space attached to the courthouse will become a holding area for inmates on their court dates. There are other officers at the soon to close Burke-Catawba Detention Facility but that is a separate entity from the Sheriff’s office. Officers there who want to work in the new jail will have to apply.

Even if all from both jails are accepted in, they will still be short of filling the 54 slots, says Whisenant. He hopes others will want to join the force as well. Hiring has already begun.

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