‘Our deputies don’t have time to breathe’

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

EUREKA – Humboldt County’s multi-pronged crime-and-drugs culture has become an around-the-clock phenomenon, 365 days a year.

Sheriff William Honsal says his deputies have no down time. “They’re going 24-7 in every part of this county. Deputies don’t have time to breathe with the number of calls” to be dealt with.

“It is absolutely exhausting,” he says.

In a recent tour d’horizon interview in his office, Honsal recalled, “We used to have downtimes on Saturday morning, Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon. They were ‘family days’ when things were less busy. Now Sundays are known as ‘psycho Sundays.’”

Family fights, domestic violence, child abuse, drug overdoses, homelessness, rampant public drunkenness and disturbance calls “are non-stop.”

Humboldt’s cankered social climate and steady decline have been in the making for decades, the new sheriff underscores.

“Anyone who’s been around here the last 20 years sees” an unhealthy coastal milieu where “permissive attitudes foster a normalization of lawbreaking and moral collapse.

“Every community has drug issues, but once upon a time abuse wasn’t out in the open,” nakedly exposed in everyday life, in the streets parks, playgrounds, neighborhoods, fields and roadsteads, Honsal underlines.

“Now people freely shoot up in public.” Modesty, discretion and reticence about illegal drugs have vanished. The sheriff denounces the emergence of legislative initiatives such as AB 186 which in his view legitimize addiction, fueling the socially costly health care and rehabilitation demands that afflict families, neighborhoods and society-at-large.

Rehabilitation burdens on the county have grown heavier with Sacramento’s recent statutes, leaving the jail jam packed. Full capacity is 417 inmates. “We hover around 400 everyday, always around 94 percent,” Honsal says.

With the jail’s rising mental health population, however, used capacity is effectively 100 percent because mentally ill inmates have to be housed alone.

“We have such a huge mental illness criminal population that it blocks the use of double-cells.”       

The pressures on the jail and corrections officers are by no means confined to inmate population pressures. Just last week, a corrections deputy was assaulted by two inmates who inflicted multiple contusions and abrasions. He will recover.

Increasingly corrections offers have to deal with inmate behavior that is, in the sheriff’s words, “zombie-like.” They are at risk from addicts and numerous mental illness victims who commit criminal acts.

Even more daunting are the addicts who are both highly intoxicated and mentally ill.  Humboldt County has one of the worst addiction rates in California.

While there is a local leadership consensus that jail is no place for the mentally ill, and that their numbers are multiplying, the state recently denied the sheriff’s office $16. 6 million for a 52-bed mental health jail unit (Union Nov. 9, 2016).       

These combined circumstances make recruiting and retaining corrections officers a challenge. “You’re asking someone to take a 15, 16 dollar an hour job when they are working in the jail 12.25 hours a day,” Honsal explains. “One person manages 70 inmates. Some inmates have such a serious mental illness that it is impossible to communicate with them. They are highly unstable.”

Under the statewide industry standard, corrections officers make 12 percent less than sheriff deputies, who earn $28 an hour.

Humboldt County corrections officers merit a living wage adjustment, which certainly would boost recruitment and retention, Honsal says. “We’re losing a lot of our senior correctional deputies and their experience, communication skills, patience and command presence. We sink a lot of money into training.

“Should we let someone go out the door because Costco pays $18 an hour with better benefits and weekends and holidays off? It takes a special person to do this kind of job.


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