Training in line for guards

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The Socorro County Detention Center has a new certified trainer on staff to educate guards at the jail, a move anticipated to save the county money in many directions.

During the Socorro County Commission regular meeting Aug. 27, detention administrator Evangel Maldonado said formal coursework with the new trainer would start Sept. 2, a 320-hour correctional officer certification course. Detention center guards already certified will take a 40-hour refresher course.

Maldonado said the 320-hour course will help the jail achieve accreditation with the New Mexico Association of Counties. NMAC requires 160 hours of training for its detention center accreditation.

"So we'll be above and beyond that," Maldonado said. He added those who have completed the 320-hour course will attend the 40-hour refresher each succeeding year.

County Manager Delilah Walsh listed some cost savings the on-staff trainer will bring the county. She said when the county looked at sending guards to training at NMAC or New Mexico State University, it was going to cost $10,000 to $15,000 in overtime, in addition to the payments for the courses. Then it would have cost another $15,000 to $20,000 to ship inmates out of the facility while officers completed the course, since it would only be held once a year and all would have to attend.

"It's really a big savings," Walsh said. "It's a huge opportunity. We're in a really good position to have people that are certified."

During an interview at the jail Aug. 29, Maldonado introduced SCDC's new certified trainer, Robert Felix. Felix came to SCDC from the Lincoln County Detention Center, where he was the chief of security. Before Lincoln County, Felix worked for the state Department of Corrections. All told, Felix has 18 years' detention experience. He started work at SCDC in mid-August and plans to stay there full time until he retires.

Maldonado said from now on, all of the officers hired at the detention center will complete their classroom work before they start work at the jail. He mentioned the jail has a lot of employee turnover; lately SCDC has had to do "quite a bit" of hiring. He speculated some people may have quit because they didn't realize what the job was going to be like and weren't prepared to face it, while others may have left because they hadn't received adequate training.

"Hopefully the ones we hire now will stay because they will get the training they need," Maldonado said.

In addition to the correctional officer certification course starting Sept. 2, Maldonado said staff would get trained on the use of pepper spray Aug. 31, including "crowd size." "Crowd size," he explained, is a can of pepper spray about the size of a fire extinguisher intended to help manage large groups of ill-behaved inmates.

Maldonado said the jail has implemented some new policies, including a building schedule for inmates and staff. Meals, laundry services, commissary access and distribution of cleaning supplies, for instance, will all occur at certain scheduled times, which was not the case before.

Maldonado said an inmate discipline program has also been implemented. Felix explained the program includes rewards, such as commissary privileges and access to telephones, to encourage good behavior on the part of inmates. Negative behavior, such as fighting, stealing or disrespecting staff, is documented in a misconduct report and can result in privileges being withheld.

Maldonado said beyond the NMAC accreditation the detention facility anticipates achieving through Felix's correctional officer certification, SCDC could be on track to get American Corrections Association accreditation as well.

Maldonado explained ACA accreditation would lower liability insurance costs for the county — i.e., taxpayers — and likely open up more opportunities to secure grants. Felix agreed ACA accreditation helps detention facilities access federal funding, as well as assures the public that the jail is being held to a certain respectable standard.

Maldonado said he has known Felix a long time, since they worked together in Valencia County several years ago.

"He called me one day and said he was coming back to Socorro," Maldonado said. "And I said, 'Hey, come work for me.'"

Maldonado said without Felix on staff, SCDC would have to ship all its inmates out to other facilities for a week, plus pay staff overtime and pay a trainer to come instruct the staff. In the past, he said SCDC had to operate short-staffed while sending two to three guards at a time to other counties to train for a week. Often, the trained staff would quit and SCDC had to start the process all over.

Felix, who is originally from Belen, said he wanted to come back to this area of the state. When he left the Lincoln County Detention Center, he telephoned Maldonado.

"I wanted to give my knowledge and help him (Maldonado) out," Felix said. "I know he's done a lot here for the county, and I just wanted to push him forward to that extra goal he's looking to achieve."

Felix said he has four years until he is eligible for retirement, and he plans to remain at SCDC until he retires. He may continue working beyond the four years as he has goals he would like to help SCDC reach, or he may come out of retirement as needed for training.

"The sky's the limit," Felix said. "It's not about the money for me. I love this job."

Maldonado, who has been SCDC detention administrator eight years, said the jail is on the move toward positive change with the new guard training and new policies being implemented, not to mention construction of the new jail facility anticipated to start next summer — "finally." He said SCDC has come a long way in eight years, owing much of its progress to Walsh, "a great county manager."

"I don't know where we'd be without her," Maldonado said. "And the commission is great too. Without all of them, none of this would be happening."

Felix said his corrections officer training will include report writing; mail screening; what to do in case of riot, as well as "what to do afterward — stress management"; narcotics recognition; and gang identification, including prison gangs versus street gangs. He has an extensive PowerPoint presentation of tattoo designs from a multitude of gangs found in the state, as well as out-of-state gangs whose members turn up from time to time.

Felix noted Socorro, being centrally located in the state and on major highways, sees gang members from all over funnel through the area. Sometimes they end up at the jail, impacting the facility with gang life — assaults, homemade weapons and narcotics.

"Ninety-five percent of the time, they'll come to a county facility before they go to the state prison," Felix said.

Felix is also a certified firearms instructor, further training he can offer SCDC staff. He expressed willingness to do anything necessary to make working at SCDC a more positive experience.

"Anything I can do to make it better for my administrator or the officers here, then I know I did my job," Felix said. "And that's something I can sleep well with at night."