Full jails not new to area

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 8, 2003

The overcrowded Lawrence County Jail is a 20th Century structure handling 21st Century inmates.

The jail, constructed in 1974, was built for 52 inmates, 48 male and four female. The addition of six semi-permanent bunks increased the actual capacity to 58 inmates.

As of March 20, the Lawrence County Jail was in excess of 65 inmates. When the jail is overcrowded, the inmates have to be housed in facilities outside the county at an extra cost to county taxpayers. The cost is usually a minimum of $40 per day per inmate. On top of these expenses, the Lawrence County Sheriff's Department also must pay for fuel and overtime for the out-of-county transports.

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The overcrowding problem could possibly be solved by the construction of a new jail, something that the county cannot afford at this time. Virtually every county jail in Ohio is overcrowded, resulting in county sheriffs having to search all over the state

for somewhere to house inmates.

All of Lawrence County's neighbors are dealing with an overcrowding problem, causing the sheriff's department to make long out-of-county transports. Currently, nine Lawrence County inmates are housed four hours away in the Clinton County Jail in Wilmington.

The reasons other jails in the area are overcrowded seem to be identical.

When someone is incarcerated in the Lawrence County Jail, drugs or alcohol is involved approximately 80 percent of the time, Sheriff Tim Sexton said.

The Lawrence County Jail has a "tank" area in which intoxicated new arrivals stay until they are sober. On some nights, particularly Friday and Saturday, 10 inmates could enter the tank at about the same times, Maj. Jeff Lawless, jail administrator, said.

If public education efforts increase, Sexton said, individuals make their own decisions as to whether or not they will use drugs or make a living selling them. Also, drugs lead to an unsafe society in which individuals will do anything, such as shoplifting, to support their habits.

"I'll fill the jail as full as they will let me with drug traffickers," Sexton said.

Gallia County Sheriff Dave Martin echoed Sexton's sentiments.

"I estimate that drugs and alcohol are probably 80 percent of the problem," he said. "That's the root of it."

Even though the Jackson County Jail is only three years old, it is overcrowded as well. Most incarcerations are a result of drug abuse and domestic violence cases, Sheriff John Shasteen said.

"We have a 40-bed facility and we need an expansion," Shasteen said. "The jail stays full. Forty beds are inadequate."

The Lawrence County Sheriff's Department receives an average of 33 domestic violence calls per month. Ten years ago, the parties involved in domestic violence incidents would only be separated, Sexton said. Now, those responsible are more likely to be incarcerated.

The construction of a new jail in one neighboring county may give it relief from its overcrowding problem.

In May 2002, Scioto County received a $6.8 million grant to construct a new jail after Richland County turned the money down. This money will go to replace Scioto County's 75-year-old jail.

Approximately 60 inmates are being housed outside the county because the jail can only hold 91 inmates, Sheriff Marty Donini said. Only 20 cells are double-bunk, because a 6-by8-by-8 cell is too small for two inmates, Donini said.

"Drugs are a big problem that's packing the jails," Donini said.

To combat the overcrowding problem that was costing Scioto County $1 million per year in out-of-county expenses, Donini instituted a waiting list for some having to serve a jail sentence. Only non-violent offenders were the ones placed on the list. Those charged with domestic violence were not. Because domestic violence is such a hot issue, Donini said, those offenders were not placed on the list.

"You have a job you want to do, but you can't break up the county," Donini said.

The criminal gender gap is closing. The Lawrence County Jail has the capacity for four female inmates. Two inmates incarcerated in Clinton County are women, Sexton said.

During an overcrowding crisis, the Scioto County Jail also had 36 to 48 female inmates that had to be housed outside the county. Finding a jail outside the county that would have the room to house the women was difficult, Donini said.

Also, population in Lawrence County has steadily increased since the jail's construction in 1974. According to U.S. Census data, Lawrence County's population was 56,868 in 1970. In 2001, the population was estimated to be 62,009.

"I wish Lawrence County the best of luck. I know what (Sexton) is going through,"

Donini said.