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Low pay main cause of Buffalo’s cellblock attendant shortage

Buffalo has had a hard time holding onto the men and women who keep lawbreakers behind bars at the city cellblock.

Upward of half the cellblock attendants hired when the jail opened four years ago are no longer on the payroll, and replacing them has been a constant challenge.

And with the recent arrest of a cellblock attendant whose brutal beating of a prisoner was captured on surveillance cameras, some are arguing cellblock attendants’ low pay contributes to problems at the lockup. Base salaries are set to improve starting next week under a new contract, but city cellblock attendants will continue to earn substantially less than their county and state counterparts.

There are 44 budgeted positions for cellblock and senior cellblock attendants, and 12 slots are currently unfilled.

An unflattering spotlight has been focused on the position following the arrest of senior cellblock attendant Matthew J. Jaskula in June. He was federally charged with beating a handcuffed prisoner while the two arresting officers watched the attack and did nothing to stop it. The prisoner, Shaun P. Porter, 37, had been arrested on an assault charge.

Jaskula, 26, is not the first city cellblock attendant who has turned to violence, authorities say.

Jerome Barber was fired May 6 for attacking a supervising police lieutenant in the cellblock.

“Barber was working when he physically confronted the lieutenant,” a police source said, requesting his name be withheld because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

What provoked that attack?

“Barber believed his son had been arrested, and he wanted to go back to the cell and visit, but the lieutenant refused to let him,” the police source said. “Barber started shoving the lieutenant.” Other police officers confirmed the incident.

Then there’s a former cellblock attendant whose off-duty dogfighting activities cost him his job.

Shanon W. Richardson was fired last year after he was convicted of three felony counts of training and fighting dogs. He’s now behind bars in state prison.

Tying all of these transgressions to the pay issue, the police source said, “You get what you pay for.”

Others share the same opinion.

City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder said low pay has definitely been a contributing factor in trying to maintain a stable, problem-free workforce. Better pay is needed to avoid future mishaps at the cellblock, he said.

“It is no surprise that half the cellblock workforce has left the city over the past four years when you consider that they can make about twice as much in similar positions elsewhere,” said Schroeder, whose office has been looking at staffing and pay levels at the cellblock.

The city reclaimed cellblock operations from Erie County in 2012, after a nine-year regionalism experiment failed to save tax dollars. Individuals arrested by city police had been taken directly to the Erie County Holding Center for processing, but long waits resulted in hefty overtime bills for police officers and less time for them to patrol the streets.

In March 2012, the city started hiring cellblock attendants. The attendants took part in a 99-hour Basic Course for Peace Officers and received additional training from the department’s Police Academy officers to prepare them for situations they could face, including dealing with prisoners who are uncooperative, intoxicated or suicidal. The new $3.7 million cellblock opened in the basement of Buffalo City Court May 14, 2012.

The salary for that first wave of attendants was initially about $22,300 annually but in 2016, increased to $24,377 and now tops out at $39,535. And there is overtime: $1.3 million has been paid out for it since 2012. But not everyone wants to work it. Several cellblock attendants have been brought up on disciplinary charges for failing to report to work for the mandatory overtime.

The base pay, however, has been cited as the chief reason so many have quit the cellblock.

According to state Labor Department figures, the average salary for correction officers and jailers in Western New York is $62,370, and the entry level annual salary is $47,700.

Even with the new pay scale negotiated by AFSCME Local 264 union officials and the city’s administration, the top pay for senior cellblock attendants will reach only $48,000 two years from now.

In contrast, a state prison correction officer’s salary, after 26 weeks, is $48,889, and an Erie County Holding Center guard’s salary, after 12 months, is $47,705.

“If you want to cut down on turnover, overtime and lawsuits resulting from these types of incidents, you are going to have to pay the cell block attendants more,” Schroeder said. “Paying low salaries for these positions is a classic example of being penny wise and pound foolish.”

Traditionally, city jobs have paid less than similar public jobs in the suburbs, county and state. Union officials at Local 264 declined to comment for this story.

Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said the turnover at the cellblock is not surprising.

“Cellblock attendants move on for better pay and to work for organizations like the Erie County Sheriff’s Office or the state’s prison system,” he said. “They want to further their careers.”

But some cellblock attendants have managed to double their pay.

For instance, Jaskula, who was hired in October 2013, earned a total of $46,363 last year.

His overtime pay, $23,777, was more than his base salary of $22,586. Before he was suspended in the May 19 attack, he had earned almost $16,000 in overtime in the city’s fiscal year, which concluded Thursday.

It is unlikely Jaskula will ever again set foot in the cellblock as an employee. He has not only been charged with a federal felony count alleging he violated an inmante’s civil rights, but he and the two arresting police officers have been suspended and are the subject of an internal affairs investigation.

The state Commission of Correction has also launched an investigation into the attack.

“The commission is investigating the incident and is working to ensure that the investigation does not interfere with the pending criminal case,” said Janine Kava, the commission’s spokeswoman.