Local jails overcrowded, failing safety standards, investigation shows

6:00 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017 Local
A Clark County Sheriff's deputy steps over female inmates sleeping on the floor of an over crowded cell block Thursday. Bill Lackey/Staff

The Montgomery County Jail housed 791 people during its November 2016 inspection. The state says it should house no more than 443 to ensure staff and inmates are safe.

The Clark County Jail had 195 inmates during its last inspection — 28 over its state-recommended capacity.

In fact, of 12 jails in an eight-county region in southwest Ohio, seven had more inmates than their state-recommended capacity when they were inspected last year — and all but one of the 12 missed at least one safety and security standard, an I-Team analysis of jail inspections across the state shows.

The analysis shows the extent to which overcrowding and sub-standard conditions in the jails are putting corrections officers and inmates at risk and costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

Counties are building new jails, expanding old ones and, in some cases, paying on lawsuits filed by inmates alleging unsafe conditions.

The problems exist throughout Ohio, the analysis found, as two-thirds of the jails are either overcrowded, fail to meet state safety and security standards, or both. Forty-two jails exceeded the capacity set by the state in their 2016 inspection, and five jails were more than double that capacity.

“A lot of people are being housed because they are poor,” said Ohio Public Defender Tim Young, noting most jail inmates are there awaiting trial and many could get out if they could afford bail. “(Improving jail conditions) is going to require the legislature to step up and care about the most destitute in our society.”

A single-occupancy cell should be the equivalent of 7-feet by 10-feet, according to the Bureau of Adult Detention, which inspects the state’s jails. Yet jails have added more beds by double- or quadruple-bunking cells, putting mattresses on floors and even removing cell doors.

“People need a bare minimum of space just to live and to keep their sanity in those environments,” said Mike Brickner, senior policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. “One of the issues you see with overcrowded jails and prisons, you see incidents of violence …when people are packed in like sardines, it just turns the temperature up in the facility.”

Local law enforcement officials say the opioid crisis — and the array of drug-related crimes produced by it — has contributed to the overcrowding problem. And they fear more cramped jail conditions will result from the state’s efforts to deal with the state prison system’s own overcrowding problem.

Ohio’s prison population is at historically high levels, which is causing state officials to look for alternatives such as keeping lower-level felony offenders in the community instead of sending them to prison. But many sheriffs say those offenders will end up in jails that are even more crowded than the prisons.

“You can cram them in there, but then you have to take into account the safety and security of the staff,” Warren County Chief Deputy Barry Riley said.

Warren County commissioners recently passed a temporary sales tax increase to pay for a new $50 million jail. This followed an incident in August when officers rushed from other jurisdictions to thwart what was believed to be a planned riot at the jail, where cell doors had been removed to make room for more inmates.

“We cannot fit any more into that building,” Riley said.

Concerns about the treatment of inmates at the Montgomery County Jail have spurred a federal probe and a litany of lawsuits over the past year that have cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The jail was the state’s 10th most crowded, according to its last inspection, with an inmate population that was at 178 percent of the state-recommended capacity.

Montgomery County Chief Deputy Rob Streck said parts of the jail date back to 1964.

“The location of the toilets, shower, HVAC, and miscellaneous pipes that may leak (are issues),” he said. Personality conflicts get heightened in the jail’s tight quarters, he added, “because there is nowhere to get away from that individual.”

Clark County in 2016 missed 23 standards that the state classifies as essential, and that was an improvement over the previous year when the jail missed 42 essential standards. In another category, labeled important, the jail went from 37 missed standards in 2015 to 12 in 2016.

Lacking medical and mental health policies accounted for several of the missed benchmarks.

“We’re working toward improvement (but) we won’t meet all the standards,” said Clark County Jail Administrator Lt. Mike Young. “With the design of our facility, we won’t meet all the standards.”

The Greene County jail has been under a federal consent order to control its prisoner counts since 1989, said Sheriff Gene Fischer. The main jail is at 148 percent of capacity and is particularly overwhelmed with female inmates. It houses inmates that can’t be held at the lower-security adult detention center, which has more room.

“Would we like a new jail? Absolutely,” said Fischer, adding that there are no plans to build one.

Butler County’s two open jails in 2016 met compliance standards. The maximum security jail was slightly over bureau-recommended capacity, but the minimum security facility was nowhere near capacity.

Miami County also has two jails. And while its minimum security jail was only at a third of its listed capacity last year, the county’s maximum security lock-up was at 187 percent, making it the most overcrowded of the local jails.

Miami County Sheriff Dave Duchack admits the situation is less than ideal. “If you have more space, you’re less likely to have problems between inmates,” he said. “You don’t want to warehouse and pack them in. (But) what am I supposed to do, say I’m not taking them and leave them in the community?”

Duchack said the county did a cost estimate three years ago on the upgrades that would be needed to put the jail in line with state standards. The total — $10 million — put the improvements on a back burner, he said.

Robert Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association, said bookings across the state have swelled with the opioid crisis.

“The facilities we built in the last 20 years are absolutely not capable of handling this increase, especially in the female population,” he said. “(But) there hasn’t been any money available to the locals for the construction of new institutions at the local level probably in 20 years.”

Cornwell said sheriffs are in agreement that jail alternatives, including increased treatment programs, are needed to deal with the influx of opioid-addicted inmates. Jails, he said, have become the counties’ largest detox and mental health centers, and that’s a function they weren’t built to serve.

State Rep. Jeff Rezabek, R-Clayton, said counties “have kind of taken two hits to the chin” with cuts to local government funds and the opioid epidemic.

Rezabek, who is vice chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, said bail and sentencing reforms will help, but he conceded counties need help bringing jails up to acceptable standards.

“We need to make sure we’re meeting those goals, and some of it is to try to get some funding back into those smaller counties, and even those larger counties,” he said. “It’s really important we get this right to make sure everybody’s safe.”

Ohio’s 89 full-service jails are supposed to be inspected annually by the Bureau of Adult Detention, a division of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. These are mostly county jails, though some city jails are included, such as the city of Middletown’s.

The bureau has historically lacked the resources to meet its mandate. During the recession, its staffing was cut to one inspector who ceased conducting on-site inspections for years. The office now has three inspectors and visited every prison in the state last year, but 24 of the 2015 inspections weren’t done until 2016.

The bureau hasn’t released an annual report since 2008. It started putting individual prison inspections online after a public records request from this newspaper.

BAD Chief Inspector Roger Wilson said the agency has made strides in recent years in oversight. Jail standards were revised in 2014 and the inspection process was streamlined last year.

Wilson helped develop the 53 essential and 63 important standards that make up the bureau’s inspections. To be in compliance with state rules, jails must meet 100 percent of the essential standards and 90 percent of the important ones.

Essential standards include having an established security perimeter, an emergency response plan, maintaining official counts of inmates, tracking proper use of force and monitoring inmates in restraints, conducting health and fire inspections, providing medical and mental health services, and providing food in sanitary conditions.

Important standards include giving inmates access to telephones, properly booking and searching the jail population, separating inmates by gender and violence level, providing proper per-inmate space, maintaining proper lighting, providing clean bedding, and providing adequate inmate recreation and discipline.

“We wholeheartedly believe we have much better operating jails in Ohio than we had prior to this process being implemented,” Wilson said.

Forty-four jails were found out of compliance in their 2016 inspection — the same number that were out of compliance in 2015.

Jails found out of compliance are required to write a letter to the bureau explaining how they expect to come into compliance. But often the same issues are identified year over year.

“As long as they are identifying how they are going to work toward compliance in that action plan, that’s good enough for us,” said Jon Radebaugh, the assistant administrator over BAD. At the following year’s inspection, he said, inspectors will review what actions were taken.

The bureau, however, has no direct enforcement authority. It can file a court injunction to shut down a jail for flouting standards, but it has never done that.

“We always have the mindset that we’re going to work with the jails to bring them into compliance,” Radebaugh said. “We’ve been able to work through whatever issues we’ve found.”

Young, Ohio’s public defender, said the state needs to provide more oversight of county jails and more resources to help them meet standards.

“There’s no enforcement. There’s no closure of the jails. There’s no penalty or fine if they don’t meet those standards,” he said. “Until we pass statewide standards with real review of these jails and real oversight we are throwing people’s lives away.”

Cornwell said BAD is “a bark without a bite” — by design.

“If the state comes in and says you have to do this, the county is going to say, ‘That’s an unfunded mandate. Give me the money.’ And the state doesn’t want to do that,” he said.

Brickner said the lack of meaningful oversight means Ohio’s jails are essentially “self-regulated.”

Finding money at the local level for jails has been a challenge, and voters in some communities have simply said no.

Coshocton County’s jail was built for 15 people, yet housed more than 50 during last year’s inspection, when it also missed 80 state standards.

But voters in the east-central Ohio county have repeatedly rejected a jail levy that might improve conditions.

In Fairfield County, southeast of Columbus, officials talked about needing a new jail for decades before a $35 million facility opened in June of this year.

A month before it opened, two inmates escaped from the old jail by unlocking the door in the holding cell they were in and walking out the front door. They were captured a short time later.

The 50-year-old jail the inmates walked out of last year was at 344 percent of its state-recommended housing capacity. 

In Clark County, overcrowding has forced inmates at times to sleep on mattress pads on the floor. And when the main jail was too full, female inmates were housed in trailers in the parking garage under the jail.

BAD inspectors have repeatedly directed the county to quit using the trailers because of security and space concerns. Jails are supposed to provide 50-square-feet of sleeping space per inmate.

The county isn’t using the trailers at the moment, but officials say they will if inmate counts increase.

“We would love to have a new jail,” said Clark County Maj. Gary Cox. “This is what we have. We manage.”

On any given day, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than half of the inmates housed at Ohio’s jails are there awaiting their day in court — still innocent in the eyes of the law.

Ohio’s jails altogether held 19,102 people during inspections last year.

Many counties have begun looking at alternatives, including releasing people on their own recognizance or with ankle bracelets.

To minimize overcrowding in its jail, the Warren County sheriff’s office in 2013 no longer locked up people with non-violent, misdemeanor offenses when the jail was at its limit.

“We’re at capacity now, and we’re turning away fresh arrests because we don’t have room for anything other than felonies or crimes of violence,” said Riley, the chief deputy. “That makes it a little bit — a lot — harder on the (deputies) who need to make an arrest and cannot.”

Reducing the inmate county in Montgomery County would require effort from other county agencies, Streck said.

“The judges would have to decide who they felt needed to be remanded to jail, based on bond amount or sentencing,” he said. “Probation and Parole Officers would have to develop alternative options once one of their clients violates the conditions of their release, and law enforcement could be limited on who they could book into the jail.”

Branford Brown, executive director of the Miami Valley Urban League and a member of the Montgomery County jail advisory committee that was formed in the wake of concerns about conditions at the jail, said all options are on the table.

“We’re going to make recommendations based on best practices, what we believe the county, the sheriff needs to do without any limits,” he said. “If we double the size of the jail and we quadruple the (jail) population, what gains have we made?”

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