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Low pay for city’s cellblock attendants adds to the problems of a difficult job

It’s too much to say that low pay for jailers was the reason a Buffalo inmate was brutally beaten and that a cellblock attendant is charged with a federal crime. But it’s also impossible to pretend that $28,000 a year might not have some influence on what caliber of person is going to apply for a difficult, unpleasant and largely thankless job, and how long anyone will stay with it.

That first-year salary is the amount negotiated in a new contract for cellblock attendants in their first year, and it is dramatically lower than the pay for similar positions elsewhere in Erie County. A state corrections officer receives an annual salary of $48,889 after 26 weeks, for example. At the Erie County Holding Center, a new guard makes $42,657 a year and after 12 months, $47,705.

It’s not just that low pay has the potential to attract less-qualified job candidates – or even disastrous ones – but also that it is less likely to retain those who take the job. It’s no surprise that more than half the cellblock attendants hired when the city jail opened four years ago are no longer working there. That includes Matthew J. Jaskula, who has been charged with federal crimes after video recordings reportedly showed him mercilessly brutalizing a handcuffed prisoner.

The high costs of low pay are now coming home to roost. The video that shows Jaskula slamming a prisoner into a metal door and then further abusing him is evidence not only in criminal charges against the 24-year-old, but likely evidence in what seems like the inevitable – and well-justified – civil lawsuit. Other cellblock attendants have also been involved in violence, and one lost his job on a felony conviction related to dogfighting.

Jaskula’s age is surely not coincidental to this train wreck of a problem. Low pay is likely to attract younger people, yet it seems inconceivable that someone so inexperienced could have the necessary skills and temperament to work professionally in an environment where insults and challenges to authority are sure to be rife. And he wasn’t just a cellblock attendant.

On the very day that the inmate was beaten, Jaskula had been unaccountably promoted to senior cellblock attendant. “You get what you pay for,” a police source told News reporter Lou Michel.

City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder agreed. “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,” he said. Schroeder’s office has been looking at staffing and pay levels at the cellblock.

City jailers aren’t the only ones who need to be watched, of course. At the state prison in Attica, guards were convicted, though only of misdemeanors, for a vicious assault on a prisoner. And guards at the prison in Dannemora reportedly assaulted prisoners after last year’s escape of two murderers, David Sweat and Richard Matt.

Nevertheless, since it didn’t happen earlier, this would be a good time for Mayor Byron W. Brown and members of the Common Council to have another look at pay levels in the jail and the necessary qualifications for the job. That could at least reduce turnover and the likelihood of further official violence.

And on that score, it also seems like a good idea to remind all jailers and inmates that they are being recorded and that the penalties for misconduct can be severe, as Jaskula may learn the hard way.