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Jeff Searls

All shiny and new, Genesee County Jail is shaping up with new deputy superintendent and dedication set for Friday

By Joanne Beck
Jeffrey Searls with office decor at new jail
Deputy Jail Superintendent Jeff Searls in his office at the new Genesee County Jail on West Main Street Road in Batavia. 
Photo by Joanne Beck

Jeffrey Searls has amassed a career so wide and varied that perhaps even he has underestimated just how much, such as when his wife Kristie asked him how many challenge coins he had collected.

A former deputy field office director for the U.S. Immigration Department who has also been part of a security detail for a former president and is now deputy superintendent of Genesee County Jail, Searls modestly told her about 15 or 20. Challenge coins are traded with others in the field and often in the military, similar to business cards, only more aesthetically pleasing and collector-worthy.

She took hold of the collection of colorful coins — more like dozens plural  — and lined them up in rows on a wooden flag that decorates his office at the new Genesee County Jail. A minor detail to some, though they speak to the nearly two dozen years of work both out in the criminal justice field and in administration. 

“And so she bought me that, and I had more coins. So then I had to get another one. Then, over time, they filled up; it was one of those things I just kind of threw them in there and didn't pay attention,” Searls said during an interview at his office in the new jail. “And then she's like, you know, they’re kind of nice, you should display them. I’m like, yeah, you're right. I really had no idea how many I had then because I've just thrown them in that basket over the years. And I'm like, wow, I’d say quite a few. So it's kind of a neat little collection.”

Admittedly, Searls is not akin to clutter, so all the shiny newness aside, his office will likely remain as orderly as it was on this day, with few but meaningful pieces of decor on the walls and bookshelves, including the coins flags, a wooden flag-themed Special Response Team plaque, two buffalo — the animal, not city —  items and a group police photo. 

He has worked at other jobs prior to immigration, he said, including a stint at CY Farms “way back when,” and as a probation officer in 1997, but since 2000, his criminal justice/law enforcement career has taken off.

“I was eligible to retire and was looking for other after-retirement jobs, so this situation kind of fell in my lap, really. I had experience running the Detention Center for Immigration on Federal Drive, and it was just the right timing. So I applied, interviewed, and got selected,” he said.

At first blush, he said he enjoyed being an officer where the bulk of the action outweighed the administration side of things; however, after more contemplation, he revised that response.

“I did like being an officer, but I also enjoy being an administrator as well. I like being able to lead others and providing the tools they need to help them succeed in reaching their goals,” Searls said. “I also enjoy helping to take a vision and turning it into reality. Similar to the new jail project that started out as a conversation, to plans on paper, to construction, then ultimately it will be a fully operational facility.”

Ever since he took a criminal justice course in BOCES, Searls, who grew up in Elba, “really liked it,” he said and leaned toward becoming a cop or a fireman to help his community. 

“I always wanted to make a difference,” he said. 

A resident of Batavia for the last 18 years, he began as a detention enforcement officer—similar to a corrections officer, he said—and then moved up the supervisory ranks. In 2017, he became the facility director until 2022, when he was promoted to deputy field office director.

“I was in charge of the upper 47 counties of New York State for federal immigration. So from all the way from Erie, Pennsylvania border all the way up to Champlain and down to just north of Hudson County, Dutchess County, so the Albany area,” he said. “I was deputy field office director, so I was second in charge of the state for the agency. But in that role I'm detailed quite often. So I was detailed to Washington, D.C. and played different roles there. So I was in charge of fugitive operations, which is like going out and finding people like what the marshals would do, looking for immigration fugitives. 

“I was in charge. I was overseas,  I oversaw it nationally for a six months detail. And then also, I did another headquarters detail where I worked at the Southwest border Coordination Center. That was in conjunction with Customs and Border Protection, border patrol, and with the influx of migrants, in the last few years, worked together with a multi agency task force to try to address that,” he said. “So as the deputy national incident commander, working federally, I had to go all over the place, realistically. I did multiple stints on the southern border, mostly in Texas and Louisiana as well. Short-term details from 30 to 60 days, but I also was acting facility or acting field office director for Philadelphia for four months. So I was in charge of Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia.”

His boss was ICE headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the job meant being team leader with a SWAT team, emergency response for hurricanes in New Orleans in 2008, part of a large-scale security team for President-elect Barack Obama during his transition in Chicago, and even having to remove high-risk individuals from the United States. One thing he hasn’t done when it comes to immigration is work directly along the southern border, namely Mexico.

Since 2017, he has predominantly been in administration, running the Buffalo immigration office.

“I loved the field action, but I like teaching the younger guys. When you work the field, it’s very early morning and very late nights,” he said. “Being an administrator, some of the enjoyable aspects of it were completing projects. And similar to the new jail here, being able to get it off the ground. Most of those projects that we did were smaller in scale, but to start from scratch and get them running was very exciting, too; not along the lines of criminal justice work, but I did enjoy that, having seen the fruits of your labor.”

As deputy jail superintendent since December 2023, Searls knows all about seeing projects come to fruition. The $70 million facility is set to open for an invitation-only mingle and dedication on Friday after a year of groundbreaking, construction, change orders, infrastructure, training, and finishing touches at the Route 5 site. 

Searls is deputy to Jail Superintendent Bill Zipfel. 

“My duties since I started have been to do everything to transition for us to move from the old jail to the new jail so he's able to focus on the day-to-day operations of the current jail. And to try to open a new place is a lot for one person to be in charge of, so the sheriff and the superintendent have wanted me to coordinate things here, so I've been a go-between with contractors, other vendors that are putting our security systems in and keys and doors and every little thing that goes along with construction, and also working with the commissioner of corrections of a transition team that we work with, which is four correction officers that work for us, that we have pulled from the schedule and they work here daily,” he said. “And they have worked directly with the commissioner of corrections on new policies and procedures, mainly due to the physical plan of the facility. 

"A lot of our procedures are going to be completely different here. We've been working with them developing the new policies and procedures and putting together a training program for our officers because we're going to have to know how to handle the different scenarios," he said. "Many of our officers are very experienced; however, they just have a new place and a different way of going about things. We're going to have to work through it, just how it's going to look here.” 

An example of such policies is the inmate grievance process. Searls said inmates receive a tablet that they can use for music, TV and a phone. They can also list their grievances on the tablet as an electronic log. 

“And so they've reviewed that and tried to tweak it to make it better now with technology. We have tablets here; we have different technological tools. But ultimately, if you know an inmate has a grievance, they can always say it in person, put it right down on a piece of paper, or do it through the tablet. So helping us just make sure all of our policies are in line to meet the standards that are in place,” he said. “Many, many standards have had to adjust because of technology, the changes in it. A lot of old procedures that were listed on paper had to be now with the technological age. 

"If you can use a tablet, and email, is it necessary to print all that paper out? So adjusting policies like that, there are ways or other things that always in the past had to be on paper, paper logs, now we can go with more electronic logs," he said. "So that’s been very helpful. And, obviously, in the long run, a cost savings to the county.”

The new jail provides opportunities for more outdoor recreation and larger day rooms to relax and watch TV, he said. There are some work positions in the kitchen and laundry areas, and he would like to see more work programs be developed in the future. 

Genesee County Animal Shelter is adjacent to the jail, and there are potential opportunities for inmates to help out by walking dogs or other duties, he said, but that type of program has yet to be established. 

There will be one head cook that’s a county employee and two part-time cook jobs will go to inmates that don’t have a lot of violence in their records, he said. 

Other staff includes four part-time nurses who cover shifts seven days a week and a physician who comes in two days a week. About 46 corrections officers have been hired, with four more needed to make it the 50 full-time required, plus six full-time senior corrections officers.

Friday's private dedication and tour is something to look forward to for all involved, he said.

“This is a big deal and something people should be proud of,” he said. “We’re excited to get in here, and I’m very proud to be part of it.”

The jail’s capacity is 184 inmates—148 men and 36 women—and they are expected to be housed in June. Once the males are situated in the current jail, the females will be brought in from outlying facilities in Orleans, Wyoming and Monroe counties, he said.

Once the new jail is established and flowing, Searls will focus on assisting Zipfel with daily tasks, including performance evaluations and policy reviews.

“We may have to change a few things and continue the process with that day to day,” he said. “Initially, just getting used to the space and the distance to travel from if there is an incident, that emergency incident that we need to respond to right away, there's a greater distance to travel to, but overall greater distance to travel to, by the COs to get to. So if there was a fight or medical emergency or something they had to respond to, there's a little bit greater distance. For the most part, it's just one floor, except in the housing unit, there are two floors, but it is very easy to maneuver through the facility. But it's just a greater distance.

“Overall safety concerns, the design of the facility keeps you safe. It is different than our current jail in the way it's set up there, in small, very small groups, small areas, you will have the potential for 40 people together in an open area. So there's the potential that you have one CO working with those 40 guys, you're outnumbered,”  he said. “However, generally in my past, I have not had issues with that. It's just all about communication, effective communication just between the COs, jail management, and the inmates, and effective communication usually handles any disturbance.”

There won’t be any changes to officers being armed and the use of force policies, he said, and having one officer dealing with larger groups of people is actually “a very effective and economical way of handling the inmate population.”

“Ultimately, the big key is effective communication, just being able to talk to people and respectfully, that's the main thing," he said. "But overall, the bigger the facility the potential of larger numbers. Obviously, we'll bring in the females, so that's gonna bump up our numbers on average, lately, 15 to 20 at the most, right there. We've been housing females out forever to other county jails, and as other local jails may be going through the same process, they may ask for the same type of favor."

"So I'm sure in the future, we may be housing other counties’ inmates maybe short term if they have a building project. And then there's the possibility of potentially housing federal inmates if the need arises, whether it's U.S. Marshal inmates or immigration inmates, that's open for discussion. There's a lot of moving parts with those as far as establishing a memorandum of understanding and a contract. And they have a different auditing process and things like that. So that's open for discussion down the road," he said. "Ultimately, we initially want to get open, take care of ourselves, make sure we're good to go and then see about eventually being able to utilize the full facility."

Searls and wife Kristie, a teacher at Jackson Primary School, have a son Shawn, who’s in his junior year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and two golden retrievers, Bentley and Dunkin. 

Jeffrey Searls in new jail lobby
Genesee County Jail Deputy Superintendent Jeff Searls takes a seat in the shiny new lobby.
Photo by Joanne Beck

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