Jail Woes

Published 11:07 pm Saturday, May 2, 2009

A trip through the Lawrence County Jail on a Friday morning finds one inmate who’s had it with his cell mates and wants to be placed in the drunk tank — no fighting over the TV remote there — several sleeping and one inmate helping the cook get lunch ready.

There are 70 souls in space built to house only 52.

Some inmates call out to Sheriff Jeff Lawless as he passes by. One inmate wants to take his Bible to prison with him, another wants to discuss why he is in jail.

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If some of the inmates have their worries, Lawless has a whole set of worries of his own. His biggest problem? There is simply not enough money to go around these days and the cost of providing law enforcement and incarceration is growing exponentially.

With county commission-mandated budget cuts, Lawless is being forced to do more with less. Recent cuts have him wondering if he will have to cut staff in the jail and elsewhere.

The problem is the budget cuts to law enforcement are coming at a time when Lawrence County is most in need of law enforcement. Crime is on the rise. The jail population is on the rise.

The Lawrence County Prosecutor’s Office has already logged 117 new felony cases in the first three months of this year.

If the trend continues, 468 new cases will have been prosecuted by the end of December. (This does not include cases that are carried over from one year to the next for various reasons). Most of the people against whom felony complaints are filed spend some time, from a day to months to even a year, in the Lawrence County Jail. And there begins the problem.

Layoffs and losses

At the beginning of the year, the amount of money Lawless was given to operate his department, excluding road deputies, was cut by 15 percent — roughly $177,000, the same size cut other offices endured. This was on top of a 15 percent cut in 2008 and cuts in previous years as well.

To meet that cut, Lawless said two deputies who retired last year were not replaced. One deputy who died and one who resigned this year will also not be replaced.

“My hope was to be able to squeeze by without losing too many more,” Lawless said. “But now since this award, if it has to come out of our budget it puts us in serious trouble.”

More crime

In the 1970s and 1980s most of the people housed at the jail were there for misdemeanor crimes. Now, the majority are there for felonies — serious crimes such as drug peddling, assault and burglary.

The number of inmates has steadily increased over the years and there are several reasons why.

For one thing, Lawless said, there are more crimes being committed. Also, law enforcement is doing a better job getting some of those criminals off the streets. Thirdly, the state prisons are full and many of the people who would once have been sent to a state penitentiary are now being kept in county facilities.

“The state is really putting pressure on the counties,” Lawless said. “The state prisons are busting at the seems and these days you can’t get F-5s (people convicted of fifth-degree felonies) in a state prison. Now we’re finding even F-4s are being pushed back.”

Unlike Joe Arpaio, the famed sheriff in Arizona who has inmates living in desert boot camp-style facilities, Ohio law doesn’t not allow Lawless or any other sheriff to, say, take all his drunk drivers out to the woods and pitch a tent for them. That can’t happen.

All four of Lawrence County’s judges are more frequently using home confinement when they can. But some crimes demand incarceration.

Other inmates may not be able to pay the small supervisory fee associated with the home confinement program because they are indigent.

Lawless said one of the things he has witnessed in his 20-plus years in law enforcement is the cycle of crime — if mom and dad think it’s okay to, say, use drugs or steal cars, their kids often grow up thinking that’s OK too.

“I started in 1986 and now, I have the kids and grandkids of people I was arresting back then,” Lawless said. “It’s like they’re caught in a whirlpool and can’t get out.”

More cost

If the number of inmates is on the rise, so is the cost of housing them, either here or elsewhere.

So far this year, Lawrence County has paid $107,646 to Scioto County for the care of so-called overflow inmates — inmates that can’t be kept in Lawrence County because the jail is too full.

The county commission has budgeted only $300,000 for the entire year for out-of-county inmate costs. Only three months into the year, more than a third of that money is already spent.

Usually in the winter months, the inmate population decreases. It didn’t this year.

“Usually in the winter we average 40, 45 inmates and for the past few months we’ve averaged 70 daily and average 13 out-of-county,” Lawless said.

Now, warmer weather is on the way and when the temperature rises, so does the crime rate and, in turn, the population at the Lawrence County Jail.

Medical costs are another worry. In 2008, the sheriff’s office paid out $357,000 for medical care for inmates.

Doctor visits, dental care, medication, tests for undiagnosed complaints, it all is paid for by the tax dollars distributed to the sheriff’s office.

“I’ve got one at the hospital today with chest pains,” Lawless said Friday.

If a person who normally gets federally-paid medical care (Medicaid, Medicare) is incarcerated, that federal care stops and the medical care for that person becomes the sheriff’s problem.

Lawless said probably 95 percent of the inmates in his jail do not have private insurance.

“Private insurance is used if they have it. They usually don’t,” Lawless said.

Lawless is pleased that food costs have been kept in check.

In spite of the numerous state standards that stipulate what inmates must be fed, the cost to the county for an average meal at the Lawrence County Jail is just over $1.

Getting blood out of a turnip

The county does have a pay-for-stay program that charges inmates $50 a day for every day they are eating that county meal and sleeping on that county cot.

Problem is, the overwhelming majority of inmates are indigent. Therefore, they can’t pay.

A staff of two

Manpower is an issue that clearly has Lawless worried.

The jail houses an average of 72 inmates per day and regardless of how many or how few inmates there are, an eight-hour shift usually has only two corrections officers.

Female inmates are cared for by either female dispatchers or cooks who must split their time between their jail matron duties and other responsibilities.

“We are not at all at the level we should be,” Lawless said.

Lawless pointed out that with such lopsided ratios, he is already concerned now about inmate-on-inmate violence and inmate-on-officer violence, both of which does happen.

Small spaces

At one time in the early 2000s there was a push to build new jails and a committee of Lawrence Countians was formed to snag some state dollars for the local need.

The state money didn’t materialize but talk of it resurfaced again in 2007 with no result.

The most recent annual state jail inspection rapped Lawrence County for having too many people crammed in too small a space.

By current state standards, the county jail should only house 20 inmates. Lawrence County’s facility is grandfathered in and not subject to many of the state standards.

However, if this jail were to be closed for even a day, it would have to be brought up to state standard before it could be reopened.

“We’re on borrowed time,” Lawless said. “We run this facility and we do the best we can but we’re at a point where anything can happen.”