Use of jail inmates questioned at Sutter County animal shelter
Officials this week debated the true cost of using inmate labor at Sutter County's animal shelter.
Four members of the Sutter Animal Services Authority said they want to look at keeping inmates in combination with paid employees and volunteers to create the facility's workforce.
Expert veterinarians have repeatedly pushed officials to do away with the decades old practice of using inmates to feed dogs and cats, clean their kennels and until recently, assess their health.
Their cost may not show up on a balance sheet directly, but they drain time and money by making mistakes, distracting employees and spreading disease, according to three reports that have come out over the last five years, all of them calling for an end to inmate labor.
"They're in (jail) for a reason," said Courtney Elliott, an animal control officer from Colusa County where officials use inmate labor. She gave advice to the authority at its meeting this week. "They're not there because they're the smartest people in the world."
Authority members advocated for changes to the role inmates played at the shelter, but said they could still provide free labor that can take care of stray cats and dogs while saving the county money.
"Do we need to throw out the baby with the bath water?" asked member John Dukes. "I'm trying to figure out why we're being told to get rid of this when other communities are using it."
Dukes told staff he wanted to see what other cash-strapped rural counties are doing to man their shelters.
According to the Sutter County grand jury, inmate labor doesn't work. The grand jury last year found inmates spreading diseases and making decisions about animals' health, something that should've been done by the veterinarians or veterinary technicians.
A 2007 report blamed inmate labor in part for an "abnormally" high number of dogs and cats dying in their cages.
"The utilization of inmate labor remains and will continue to pose serious and detrimental effects on shelter operations," according to the most recent report, which veterinarian Richard Bachman released in November.
Inmate labor has gotten better and worse since the report from the grand jury, said Randy Cagle, Sutter County's director of community services, which oversees the shelter.
Inmates no longer make decisions about the health of animals, something the grand jury found them doing last year. State law requires a veterinarian or veterinary technician to make those calls.
However, the shelter used to have an individual inmate for three to six months, Cagle said.
Now, staff gets someone for two to four weeks, a cycle that requires constant training.
Cagle blamed the state's realignment program which has moved offenders from state prisons to county jails.
Those inmates tend to be more violent and made law enforcement release the nonviolent offenders that used to be the staple of the shelter's workforce.
As a result, the jail is funneling fewer inmates to the shelter, and the ones they do get don't stay long.
That only exacerbates a problem pinpointed by the grand jury last April.
The grand jury found inmates are constantly cycling in and out, creating supervision problems, bad morale and a poor public image for the shelter.
There are no perfect options, Elliott told board members. All three options — hiring employees, using inmates and managing volunteers — have pitfalls.
More staff costs more money, something in short supply in Colusa and Sutter counties. Volunteers, too, are difficult, Elliott added. They don't want to perform certain tasks, like cleaning out dog kennels. They also butt heads with shelter staff about how to take care of the animals.
"They want to do what they want to do," Elliott said. "There are times when I want to pull my hair out."
Some shelters pull off the balancing act better than others. Nearly all of them were doing better than Sutter County a year ago, according to Kate Hurley, director of the U.C. Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program. Hurley's inspection, findings and recommendations are the bulwark of the grand jury's report.
"Deplorable" conditions, which inmate labor helped create, put Sutter County's animal shelter in the bottom 5 percent of all shelters, according to Hurley.
Authority chairman and Live Oak Mayor Gary Baland said he hopes to get the right mix that will improve shelter operations.
"There has to be some kind of combination here."
CONTACT reporter Jonathan Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org or 749-4780. Find him on Facebook at/ADjedwards or on Twitter at @ADjedwards.