Col. John Ostrander is director of the Dougherty County Jail.
ALBANY, Ga. — Place a call to the Dougherty County Jail’s main number, and you’ll be connected to an automated information system, for many the very bane of automated technology.
But the jail’s automated system is actually carrying out tasks previously accomplished by two Sheriff’s Department officers, providing vital information about inmates to thousands upon thousands of callers each week. And, with the shaky economy on every officials’ mind these days, the system is also performing the magic function that gets everyone’s attention: saving money.
“The Automated Information System is very efficient in handling the large number of phone calls that come in to the jail every day; but perhaps just as important, it has significantly reduced the number of man hours the department needs in our lobby area,” Jail Director Col. John Otsrander said. “In fact, we have been able to reduce our lobby staff by one position per shift, reducing personnel from three a shift to two.
“We were able to reassign one person to an area that was requiring a lot of overtime, reducing our payroll considerably, and the other position was deleted. I just got the cost proposal back from our vendor (Securus Technologies) this morning, and the system is going to cost us less than $23,000 a year. The cost in salary and benefits for the position we deleted surpassed $33,000 a year.”
FEW OPT OUT
As vital as the cost savings are, the AIS used at the jail provided enough other benefits during a 60-day trial period to convince Ostrander and Dougherty Sheriff Kevin Sproul that it should remain a permanent part of the jail’s operating procedure.
“I’m a person who the last thing I want when I get on the telephone is an automated system with a voice that doesn’t speak fluent English,” Sproul said. “But when the concept of the automated system came up at a conference and I spoke with other sheriffs who were using it and found most of them like it, I certainly started thinking about it.
“We were battling personnel issues, and when I saw the proposed budget with taxes being increased in the unincorporated area of the county, I called Col. Ostrander aside and said we need to move on this. We did the trial run, and I was blown away at the number of calls we were receiving in our lobby. And I was satisfied that the system would meet our needs in an efficient manner.”
While in use at the jail during the 60-day trial period, the automated system handled 72,107 calls with 83.67 percent of callers choosing not to opt out in favor of on-duty personnel. The average duration of calls was 1 minute, 18 seconds, significantly lower than the 3-plus minutes of typical calls.
From the automated system, callers are able to find out the charges brought against a particular inmate, the amount of the inmate’s bail, the visitation schedule at the jail, the inmate’s projected release date and the inmate’s court date. Also, inmates themselves utilized the system 29,851 times, usually to find out their commissary balance.
“This system has absolutely proved to be effective,” said Ostrander, who has been with the Sheriff’s Department for 23 years, the past two-plus as jail director. “In addition to calls lasting an average of 1 minute, 18 seconds as opposed to an average of 3 1/2 minutes, every call is answered by the third ring and no one is ever put on hold.
“And there’s no measure for the amount of stress this is taking off our lobby staff, who were handling more than 850 calls a day. At 3 1/2 minutes a call, that’s 49 hours a day of telephone traffic. Also, caller access is not restricted to the hours our lobby is open (7 a.m.-10 p.m.) — it’s available 24 hours a day — and the information is available in English and Spanish ... and thank God for Google Translate.”
Of the 72,107 calls made to the jail during the automated system’s trial period, 958 opted for the Spanish language option.
The Sheriff’s Department, after being approached by vendors pitching the automated phone service, decided to give it a test drive to see if it indeed provided significant enough savings to warrant its use. Revenue from phone service at the jail, after all, is big business, accounting for more than $500,000 in costs during Fiscal Year 2012, half of which went into the county’s general fund.
Ostrander said he got Sproul’s endorsement before taking the concept to the Dougherty County Commission, which OK’d the trial period.
“(The AIS) is precisely the kind of thing we’re looking for as we try to find ways to reduce our budget,” Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard said. “When it first came up, we obviously had a few questions: What is the cost? How much money will we save? Is the system efficient? After the trial period, the numbers showed that (the system) just made good business sense.
“The system met all the legal requirements that the jail has to meet, we were able to give better service across the board, and our folks were able to cut costs. It was a win-win for the jail and the taxpayers.”
That, both Ostrander and Sproul say, is becoming even more important as the department works to maintain public safety with an ever-shrinking budget.
“Our philosphy, knowing the budget needs to be cut, is to lead the way,” Ostrander said. “We’re determined to show we can find ways to do our jobs as effeciently and as cost-effectively as possible without compromising our mission.”
Added Sproul: “This was not something we necessarily wanted to do, but we have a responsibility as stewards of the taxpayers’ money. We were able to incorporate this change into our system without laying anybody off and without anyone losing a job, and it has proven to be a very efficient system. We’re surprisingly pleased with the results.”