Sheriff: More room needed at jail

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 6, 2003

The Lawrence County Jail is currently bursting at the seams, and the problem is draining the county's budget.

"The bottom line is the Lawrence County Jail is overcrowded," Sheriff Tim Sexton said. "Every county jail is overcrowded."

The county jail, constructed in 1974, was built for a capacity for 52 inmates, 48 male and four female. All cells are double-bunk. The jail now has room for 58 because of the installation of six semi-permanent beds. However, Lawrence County still has more inmates than what it can house. Currently, the jail is in excess of 65 inmates.

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During a September 2002 inspection, Gregory J. Dann, state jail inspector, stated in a memo to Sexton that the jail must provide sufficient space for "reasonable and necessary" movement. The Bureau of Adult Detention's recommended capacity for jails constructed before 1979 is 50 square feet of sleeping space and 35 square feet of activity space per prisoner. All of the cells were under 50 square feet of living space and most day space was insufficient for the number of prisoners housed at the facility, Dann stated. The Bureau's Recommended Capacity for the Lawrence County Jail was decreased to 26.

Unless they are under lockdown, inmates in the jail's seven cell blocks have free flow between their cells and a day room within the block, Maj. Jeff Lawless, jail administrator, said. This eases the crowding situation, but they are still secured because they are not removed from the block.

After the inspection, Sexton sent a memo to Lawrence County Commissioner Jason Stephens outlining improvements needed to the jail.

To comply with the BAD's living space recommendation, Sexton offered two possible solutions. The first would be to remove prisoners from the jail and house them at other facilities. Accomplishing this would require the Lawrence County taxpayers paying a minimum of $40 per day

for each inmate house in other out-of-county facilities.

The second solution, Sexton stated, is the construction of a new jail to comply with current BAD standards.

Since 1984, the BAD has allocated $270 million to help construct jails, Scott Blaugh, bureau chief, said. However, this was before the state's current budget crisis. No funds are available to help local entities with jail construction.

Inmates are already being housed outside Lawrence County because of a lack of beds. Those housed outside the county are chosen by random selection and are already serving a sentence.

In the past, Lawrence County's inmates were housed at jails in Gallia, Jackson, Ross and Miami counties. Now, jails in Gallia and Jackson counties are full.

Ross County, Sexton said, has been extremely helpful during the past two years since he took office. However, even though its jail has in excess of 100 beds, it has recently been full as well.

Currently, nine of Lawrence County's inmates are housed at the Clinton County Jail in Wilmington, which is a four-hour drive one-way from Lawrence County, Sexton said. Another inmate is being housed at the Richland County Jail in Mansfield, the fourth county jail in which he has been incarcerated.

February's bill from Clinton County, Sexton said, was $7,000. Because February was a partial month, he estimates that housing those inmates will cost $15,000 during a full month.

That $15,000 is the cost of housing the inmates alone. In 2002, the Sheriff's Department spent $44,000 on fuel.

To make the four-hour drive to Clinton County, the Sheriff's Department must first borrow the juvenile court van, Sexton said. The Sheriff's Department's 1989 van has approximately 200,000 miles on it and is not taken because of its age and mileage. Besides inmates, the transport consists of a driver, another person riding with the driver and one or two deputies driving behind the van.

Transports also result in overtime costs for the department.

The Sheriff's Department, at this time, has no bulk fuel supply. When gas prices increase, so does the department's fuel cost. The Sheriff is currently seeking bids for a bulk fuel tank to make the department's budget less vulnerable to spikes in gas prices.

High cost, deep cuts

Transporting inmates to other counties and housing them elsewhere is adding to the already high costs of operating the Lawrence County Jail. The department has also suffered budget cuts.

"We were cut in 2001 and once again in 2002. I can't withstand any more cuts," he said. "I lost a detective and a road deputy, and I cannot replace them."

Sexton has tried to find ways to decrease operating costs and has been successful in some areas. However, he does not see many other ways he can save money.

"I have cut everywhere I can cut," he said. "When I first came here, we had a 6 percent jail inspection. Now, we have a 96 percent inspection. We always strive to do the best with what we have. If we ask for more money, we need it. We're not wasting."

In their first years, Sexton and Lawless eliminated feeding the jail inmates name-brand cereal. The department also purchases day-old bread, which saves them 24 cents on the loaf.

"It's good bread. (Lawless) eats it. I eat it," Sexton said.

Food cost the Sheriff's Department $75,000 last year. Inmates not only have to be fed, but they must also have medical care when needed.

"The medical cost is staggering," Lawless said. "The majority of inmates do not have medical insurance, and welfare benefits stop upon arrest."

The cost of that medical attention, plus prescriptions, is then passed on to the county, Lawless said. Medications cost the sheriff's department $15,896 last year.

The jail has a staff physician who visits once a week and is on call. Since the closing of River Valley Health Systems, inmates needing to be transported to a hospital have to be taken to Southern Ohio Medical Center in Portsmouth since they cannot be taken to an out-of-state hospital.

Medical transports to Portsmouth also involve taking a deputy off the road. The jail cannot be left unattended, and Sexton said he does not want to have one deputy patrolling the county alone. This would be a danger to not only that deputy, but also the public, he said.

What can be done

Even though the BAD has no money for local jail construction at this time, the situation could change when the state's new budget goes into effect in July. Until then, the Sheriff's Department has a few other options.

The current jail could be expanded in some manner, Sexton said, and this could involve adding another floor. However, besides construction, costs for expansion would include hiring engineers and architects. A larger jail would also need more staff to supervise it.

Some inmates, Sexton said, have to be in jail. Others could possibly be given non-jail sentences such as home confinement or probation. That decision, he said, lies with the courts. Sexton plans to meet with judges to find a way to reduce the number of jail inmates and the Sheriff's Department's costs.

Sexton would also like to see his department get a share of the half-percent sales tax, which was established in 1998 to fund emergency service organizations. He considers his office to be one of these organizations, but it receives no revenue from the sales tax.

However, this year's budget in Lawrence County allowed approximately $1 million less than what county officeholders requested to spend this year.

"There's no money in the budget to build a new jail at all," County Commissioner Jason Stephens said.

The question that needs to be answered in this situation, Stephens said, is whether building a new jail or continuing to house excess inmates outside the county will be more expensive. The costs of housing inmates outside the county is high, but a new jail would be expensive as well.

"It's not the best situation, but we have to do the best we can with what we've got. That's just the facts," Stephens said.

Monday: Would a regional jail help?