Cabana addressing deficiencies

Published 3:36 pm Thursday, September 14, 2006

Morale and manpower top Don Cabana’s list of major issues at the Harrison County Adult Detention Center, where the new warden is making changes based on his 37 years of experience in corrections.

In his first month, Cabana has moved the booking department back under the warden’s supervision. He has ordered the restraint chair “off-limits” without a watch commander’s approval. He also has ordered that a watch commander be present when an “unruly” detainee is brought to jail following arrest.

Rotating officers out of the stress-filled booking room and providing them advanced training are among Cabana’s plans. The jail has become the target of several civil lawsuits and a federal criminal investigation since the fatal beating in February of inmate Jessie Lee Williams Jr.

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Cabana admits he left “a cushy job” to take the post, in part because he likes a challenge.

His appointment came sandwiched in the middle of one ex-jailer’s guilty pleas to charges related to Williams’ beating — and her claim of witnessing routine use of unnecessary force in the booking room — and another ex-jailer’s arrest by the FBI on related charges that could send him to prison for life.

“I’m going to do everything it takes to restore the public’s confidence in the staff and the public’s confidence in the institution,” Cabana, a former state prison official, said Tuesday.

“The staff has taken a beating in public credibility and trust through no fault of their own. Just as in any business, 99 percent of our staff are good employees, people of good character. As with anything, it’s the 1 percent that’s going to draw the negative attention.”

Boosting morale and making senior-level staff responsible for decisions involving inmates are only part of his challenge.

The jail has an inmate-to-officer ratio of 10-to-1, twice the recommended ratio. The jail has about 100 officers for an average of 950 to 1,000 detainees. The jail needs 60 to 70 more officers, he said.

Manpower at correctional facilities is a national problem, according to Cabana, who said low salaries and high turnover are typical in the best of times.

“You take incidents such as the Williams case, throw in a Hurricane Katrina, and it’s harder to keep staffing levels up,” he said.

The county jail pays a starting corrections officer a little more than $10 an hour.

“Corrections jobs in a state prison have long been more of a career opportunity,” Cabana said. “At a county jail, it’s more often a way to get your foot in the door and work your way up to a patrol job. It’s an invisible job, in some respects. Most people don’t ever see what corrections officers have to do on the job or the environment they have to work in.”

The jail has been under a federal consent decree since 1995 to make various improvements that involve security, staffing, training and inmates’ rights. The jail is required to report operational details to the U.S. Justice Department on a quarterly basis. It remains unclear if staffing problems place the jail in violation of that order. U.S. District Judge Walter J. Gex III, who signed the order, did not return a phone call for comment.

The jail has long been criticized as being top-heavy with administrators.

The way Cabana sees it, “we don’t have enough chiefs or enough Indians. In corrections, 75 percent of your budget is going to be eaten up in salaries.”

“Don’t forget that this jail is the largest in the state,” he said. “It’s larger than a lot of state prisons. The last thing the public should want is a jail with decisions involving inmates made by corrections officers or sergeants, the front-line supervisors.”

Cabana, former state corrections commissioner, was teaching at the University of Southern Mississippi before he accepted the warden’s job. His warden’s pay is about $75,000 a year. Comparable pay in other areas, he said, is at least $10,000 to $15,000 higher.

Sheriff George H. Payne Jr. has said he spent several months trying to convince Cabana to take over the jail and make positive changes. Cabana is known in corrections circles for congressional testimony involving prison abuse and inmate rights.

“I took it because I love a challenge and I love corrections more than anything except God and my family,” Cabana said.

Inmates appear to recognize Cabana, 61, as he walks through the jail.

“’Hey, warden,”’ several said as he walked past them Tuesday. Several asked for a minute of his time.

Some complained about water leaking in their dayroom during a morning rainstorm. Another complained about broken telephones. Another wanted something that took longer than a minute. Cabana promised to return.

“They just want to talk to somebody about things that bother them,” Cabana said.

“I want to make a difference in the lives of the staff members. Sometimes, you actually make a difference in the lives of prisoners.”