Archived Story

County lacking space for inmates

Published 12:00am Sunday, April 17, 2011

By Lori Kersey

The Tribune

With concrete floors, bars for walls and a toilet that sits out in the open, jail was never meant to be a comfortable place. Like so many other small community jails though, the Lawrence County Jail is more than just uncomfortable.

It is also full.

“We’re definitely overcrowded,” Sheriff Jeff Lawless said. “And we’re not unique. Most all jails across the state and probably across the country are overcrowded. The problem is it’s harder and harder to get people into prisons. Judges have a problem getting felony fives into prison. The state doesn’t want them to put them into prisons, so they put the burden back onto us.”

The Lawrence County Jail has 52 beds plus six portables for a total of 58 beds. The problem is that the jail averages about 60 inmates each day.

Current state guidelines require there should be 55 square feet of space for each inmate. In Lawrence County, however, the average is more like 25 square feet per inmate, Lawless said.

Because the jail was built in 1972, it is obligated to abide by the 1972 regulations, not the ones for today.

Jail overcrowding isn’t just uncomfortable for the prisoners; it can also be dangerous for the correctional officers whose job it is to keep the peace. Less personal space means prisoners get agitated more easily, Lawless said.

“We, as human beings, have a body space that we feel that we are entitled to and deserving of,” he said. “When your body space is invaded, then tempers and your attitude tend to get a little worse.”

While the number of inmates has increased over the years, staffing levels at the jail have not. There are typically two correctional officers on duty at the jail during each shift.

Making the problem worse?

A bill under consideration by the state senate has the potential to compound the problem. Senate Bill 10 would change sentencing procedures so that non-violent, fourth- and fifth-degree felons with a first-time conviction would be sentenced to county jail, a community-based correctional facility or probation.

The bill, which is in committee, could potentially save the state money it would have been spending on housing these criminals in its prisons, but it would make the prisoners a local problem at the same time.

Judge Charles Cooper, of Lawrence County Common Pleas Court, said that discretion should be left up to judges, not to the legislature.

“I am confident it will be tested in the Ohio Supreme Court,” Cooper said. He added that few fourth- and fifth-degree felons in Lawrence County are sentenced to prison anyway. The law would send a message to criminal that they can commit lower level crimes without fear of a harsh punishment, Cooper said.

Turning away

prisoners

Even as it is, the sheriff frequently has to turn away prisoners. When the jail is filled to capacity, he tells the deputies and other police agencies that, except in the case of violent and felony crimes, prisoners will not be accepted.

“That becomes aggravating to the officers on the street,” Lawless said.

The sheriff added that for 90 percent of the crimes on the street, whether or not an arrest is made is up to the discretion of the officer. Domestic violence laws and other laws do require officers to make arrests in some cases.

The high cost housing prisoners in other county jails

Housing prisoners at other county jails is costly, but necessary in some cases. Lawrence County has a contract with Scioto County to use 10 beds at $48 dollars a day per prisoner. Lawless said he hopes to up that contract to a total of 25 beds.

The $48 per prisoner charge is low compared with other jails around the state. Lawless said the average charge is $50 and some counties charge up to $80 a day to house prisoners.

Compare that to the approximately $30 per day cost to the county to house prisoners at the Lawrence County Jail. The jail charges prisoners a $50 pay-for-stay fee as well, though Lawless said few actually pay it.

“You can see that it’s a huge expense to house inmates, especially out of county,” Lawless said. “Again, we become responsible for medical costs and manpower for transporting them. It’s a huge cost to the taxpayers. Crime is a huge cost and burden on all citizens of the county.”

Scioto County has a $12.5 million jail that opened in 2006. The facility has a capacity of 192 prisoners. The facility typically keeps about 50 of its beds available for inmates from other counties, said Tom Reiser, chairman of the Scioto County Commission.

At most times the jail does not have a problem with overcrowding, though there are “full moons” when there are more prisoner than usual, Reiser said.

“Generally we don’t have a tremendous overcrowding situation,” Reiser said.

Scioto County was the last county to receive funding from the state to build a new jail. The county contributed half through a bond issue, while state funds contributed the rest. Reiser said that the increased costs to operate the jail along with the economic recession lead the county into a fiscal emergency. But the revenue generated by housing out of county inmates is helping to bring the county out of that emergency.

“(The facility) probably is as up-to-date as anybody’s,” Reiser said. “We looked at keeping staffing levels as low as we can. The design we have requires less staffing than a lot of other jails.”

A new jail here?

At one time Lawrence County was high on a list of counties that would receive funding for the construction of a new jail, Lawless said. However, that money has not been available for some time.

The county does, however, have a jail committee that meets once a year so that it’s ready if funding becomes available, Lawless said.

“There’s always talk that funding is going to be available for the construction of new jails and certainly we want to be at the top of that list should funding ever become available,” he said.

The Scioto County Jail was the last to receive funding. At that time, Lawrence County was next in line to get funds.

Within the last five years, architects designed a new jail so the plans would be ready, in case the funds were available. At the time, the plan was to build an $8 million jail on the block where the jail currently sits, on Fifth Street across the street from the Lawrence County Courthouse. In order for the county to build there, however, Christ Church would have to be relocated. The Ironton Board of Education offices would possibly be vacated and used for office space at the jail, Lawless said.

Any money that the state would put towards a new Lawrence County jail would have to be matched by the county, Lawless said.

“First and foremost we would need to lay it out to public and say, ‘are you wiling to absorb that cost?’” the sheriff said.

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