Rockland County corrections officers say the biggest problem they have to overcome as they try to recruit potential new officers for the county jail staff is the image that television has created of working conditions in jails.
"We try to tell people that it's nothing like you see on TV," said Corrections Officer Aaron Concepcion, a seven-year veteran of the Rockland County Correctional Center in New City, who was part of a team that spent part of the day at Palisades Center mall in West Nyack on Tuesday recruiting applicants for the upcoming corrections officer test.
As of Tuesday, the Rockland County Department of Personnel reported 259 people have applied to take the test, which is set for Oct. 16. Anyone interested in becoming a Rockland corrections officer must take the test and file an application with the personnel department in New City by Sept. 8.
Concepcion and Corrections Sergeant Diedre Russell and Corrections Officer Kent Taylor said many people they speak with about becoming a member of the jail staff are pleased when they hear about the salary and benefits - the pay starts at $45,653 with full benefits, a 10 percent night differential and a 25-year retirement plan. However, they explained that most people don't have a clear understanding of what corrections officers do or their working conditions.
Concepcion said some job applicants think the role of corrections officer is about using brute force to control inmates. Instead, Concepcion said he explains that good people skills are key to being a correction officer, and most of the job is keeping inmates — and colleagues — safe by solving often routine problems before they can boil over.
Russell, who has worked at the jail for 10 years, said the county is especially hoping to encourage women to take the corrections officer test. She said the jail always has a need for female officers to oversee operations of the wing of the jail that houses women.
The three corrections officers set up a table with information about the upcoming test on the first floor of the mall, taking advantage of a high-traffic spot near the Cheesecake Factory restaurant to meet people. Taylor, a 23-year veteran of the jail, said he frequently attends job fairs at local colleges to help the Sheriff's Department recruit corrections officer applicants.
Sheriff James Kralik said his department is trying to get as many applicants for the upcoming test because he expects to have openings in the jail staff in 2011. Rockland County is currently offering employees a retirement incentive plan, and the retirement system for corrections officers has been changed so that they can apply for retirement after 25 years of service.
Until recently, corrections officers could not file for retirement until age 62.
The county jail, which is adjacent to the Sheriff's Headquarters on New Hempstead Road in New City, houses about 240 inmates. The inmates include people who are awaiting trial in Rockland courts, have been sentenced to a year or less in jail for a crime, or are awaiting transfer to a state prison after having been convicted.
Taylor began his career with the Sheriff's Department at the county's old jail, a cramped brick building that was adjacent to the Rockland County Courthouse. The old jail was constantly overcrowded, a situation that bred tense and often violent conditions.
Taylor said the county's new, modern jail provides much improved conditions for prisoners and for the jail staff.