Time for leaders to get serious about jail issues

Freedom New Mexico

We’re not sure what’s more frustrating of these three problems:

• Curry County Manager Lance Pyle’s inability to find a qualified jail administrator the last 2 1/2 years.

• Sheriff Matt Murray’s political temper tantrum last week that leaves the jail without an administrator as of Tuesday morning.

• Or the county commissioners’ failure to step in long ago and fix the jail’s leadership problems.

Those issues together make the public question why these leaders have all become bickering finger-pointers instead of problem solvers.

Earlier this month, Murray told the community he had volunteered to operate the jail for as long as he was needed because he felt a responsibility to keep the community safe.

Then, two weeks later, the county commissioners rejected a budget that would have funded 10 additional detention officers Murray had requested. So Murray fired off a letter declaring Monday will be the last day he will oversee the jail.

So much for the sheriff’s avowed concern for community safety.

Of course, if Pyle or his predecessor, Dick Smith, had resolved the jail leadership problem we’ve had since Don Burdine resigned in 2005, we might only be worried about how to fix our sieve of a jail.

Since 2005 the county’s been through five jail administrators or interim administrators. In that time we’ve suffered the escape of eight violent inmates — one remains free — and the attempted escape of four more inmates who caused an estimated $15,000 in damage to the jail.

Other inmates have walked out the door; one remained free for days before anyone discovered he was missing. Employees have consistently complained they are overworked, undertrained, and say they fear for their safety. Inmates have been released because of paperwork errors.

We understand the problems associated with the jail don’t have simple solutions. The facility is abysmal and leadership has been lacking for so long that staff has little foundation for knowing what works and what won’t.

What we don’t understand is why the county commissioners allowed things to reach this point.

Some suggested the sheriff run the jail, but the group couldn’t agree on that option.

Some have made a token mention about privatization, but a serious discussion of that option has not happened in public.

We could always farm out violent prisoners to more secure facilities, or hire someone to locate administrator candidates, but commissioners don’t seem willing to go there either.

The latest county committee assigned to hire a jail administrator should not give anyone confidence the problem will soon be solved. Its members include Pyle, Commissioners Robert Sandoval and Frank Blackburn, the county’s finance director and its Internet technician. What exactly do any of them know about running a jail?

Pyle, county manager since October 2007, has had 31 months to find an administrator and he has failed. The sheriff just gave us a sobering reminder that he doesn’t answer to county officials and can walk off the job at any time.

That means county commissioners need to end this needless drama. The safety of every one of us is at stake.

We suggest they form a hiring committee that includes at least one experienced county jail administrator not interested in applying for the job, someone from the association of counties with experience in jail operations, and a longtime detention officer who understands guards’ concerns.

We’d also like to see them hire a headhunter with law enforcement recruitment experience to produce qualified candidates.

If all that fails, the county needs to get out of the jail business, house only minimum-security inmates, or hire a private company to operate the jail.

The incompetence, power struggles and political pandering of Pyle, Murray and the commissioners must stop.

We don’t want another jailbreak.

Do they?