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Jail is a tough place to work

On any given day, some employees who take care of about 1,800 people may get spit on, splattered with feces or urine, cursed at or injured. It is all part of a corrections officer's job at the Pinellas County Jail.

Locked up with inmates for eight hours daily, corrections officers listen to people bare their souls. They make sure inmates get clothing, counseling, three meals each day and medical attention. They arrange meetings with attorneys and supervise inmate recreation periods.

The officers constantly watch their backs to prevent attack from the men and women who have been accused or convicted of breaking the law. The officers must prevent escapes. And sometimes, the officers _ far outnumbered _ break up fights or get hit by an inmate, all for a starting salary of $20,417.02 a year.

"If we somehow make one inmate mad, we could be in for trouble. You never know what to expect from these people. Most of them just can't deal with the world," corrections Officer Cindy Cahoon said. "Some days I go home soaking wet from sweat, and I haven't sat down except for a half hour to eat."

Such job demands and stresses can end an officer's career quickly. Turnover is so great that new officers constantly are hired to fill vacancies.

But in addition to the usual job-related stresses, the jail's corrections officers have been stung by recent criticism from a court-appointed monitor. The monitor's report said some areas of the jail are unsanitary and roach-infested. The report also indicated that mistreatment of some inmates may have occurred.

"The only people complaining were those locked up under restrictions and not in the general jail population," said Charles Felton, Pinellas corrections director. "'There's always a chance of a violent confrontation with inmates. It's an unpredictable situation, and when you're short of manpower, you run into more chances of making mistakes."

The sheriff's budget pays for only 470 corrections officers. Currently, there are 447 officers working and 22 more training in the academy.

By the time the officers graduate from the academy, about 20 more must start training to fill vacancies that have opened, Felton said. And last week, a state inspector told Felton the jail should have 103 more officers.

"It's a job that's had high turnover historically," Felton said. "It's a stressful job. You're locked up with 1,800 people, and you have to control them."

Two of the guard towers at the jail are empty. Inmates who are supposed to serve time by working at the complex on weekends often spend two days behind bars reading because no officer is available to supervise them.

One floor of the new maximum-security wing is vacant because there are not enough corrections officers to staff it. In addition to budget restraints, turnover causes staff shortage.

"A lot of officers only stay one or two years and then go to a police department," Felton said. "You're looking at more pay, and the job is perceived as more prestigious."

Some officers also quit simply because they are burned out or fed up with handling crises that may develop in the jail, he said.

During the last fiscal year, 135 corrections officers were injured in confrontations with inmates. Twenty-three of them had to get hospital treatment. Injuries ranged from scratches to a poke in the eye with a pencil.

"There's definitely no officer brutality involved here," said Officer Cahoon, 25, who has worked at the jail for two years. "Some people are scared when they come in, so they fight. The majority is on some kind of drug, and they resist. They just don't want to be here."

"We put up mostly with verbal abuse," said Darren Osgood, 28, a six-year corrections officer. "We don't use force. We have to break up fights without getting anyone hurt."

Anytime a corrections officer touches an inmate, an incident report and a use of force report are written. The inmate also must be checked by a jail nurse.

"When you get p--- thrown in your face and feces all over your shirt, you have to walk away. It's a feeling of helplessness, yeah, but you still have to go on with your day," said Alvina Walcott, a corrections officer for two years.

"Some of the things we're called, we don't know what they are. And you're afraid to ask."

The three officers admit that some days, especially because of the staff shortage, they would rather be doing something else. But they say a supportive administration and good benefits keep them on the job.

"It gets rough. Sometimes you only have one officer on a floor in the barracks or four officers with 100 inmates at lunch," Osgood said. "But it's a good job. And we do have job security."