TOO SMALL, TOO OLD: Aging county jail falls short in light of state laws
The small television pushed against a wall blares out the carnival-like morning show, “The Price is Right,” but nobody there is watching. The whine of the game show is just background noise to the men in the right main cellblock at the Lawrence County Jail.
A handful sit on wooden benches staring out through the black iron bars without seeming to see the intrusion of a visitor getting a tour of the facility. A few stretch out on mats at the feet of the other inmates, trying to sleep through the monotony of the day.
Every day men and women take up residence in the back section of 1970s building that houses the county’s sheriff’s office, across from the courthouse. When they do, they see their day-to-day living space reduced to the size of an apartment bathroom or about 13 square feet.
That’s because on any given day the Lawrence County Jail can house close to twice its originally mandated capacity and five times what the state mandates today.
It’s a reality Sheriff Jeff Lawless would like to change.
“I do have compassion for these people who are incarcerated,” he said. “They have done wrong and we need to bring them off the streets. It would be nice to have a better facility but I have to work with what is there. I am doing what I have to.”
Critics argue that overcrowding is an over-discussed issue. After all, jail is not supposed to be a pleasure cruise. But according to state standards, it’s not supposed to look like this either.
The 2003 edition of the Minimum Standards for Jails in Ohio is clear. The minimum space for an inmate is about four times more than the space any inmate at the Lawrence County Jail is forced to live in.
“There is a minimum requirement of 70 foot square individual cell — 50 foot square required for dormitory housing,” Gregory J. Dann, state jail inspector for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said via email. “In both cases 35 foot square of day space is required for each prisoner with seating and table space available for each inmate.”
By that formula the Lawrence County Jail is full when it has 16 in residence.
In 1972 the county built the present jail as a 52-bed facility. As overcrowding took over, six more portable beds were installed.
Yet the jail population kept growing. The building did not. Now there are mats on the floor and sometimes that is still not enough.
There can be between 80 and 90 prisoners on a single day at the county jail with most there for an average stay of 60 days.
“Most are felony crimes and it can be 30 to 40 days before their court case is heard and then, if it is a fourth- or fifth-degree felony they may be sentenced to our facility instead,” Lawless said.
Now, add to that rules about amenities not in existence when the jail was built.
“There was no regulation for indoor/outdoor recreation,” Lawless said. “It is required now. And the visiting areas are not satisfactory for today’s needs.”
Twice a week on Wednesdays from 5 to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. inmates can have two visitors for 15 minutes each. They stand across from each other with a concrete block wall between them in the space the size of closet and talk through a car door-size window of bullet-proof glass.
On top of that there is no medical ward at the jail, a reality that struck home hard this past month when Ashley Seagraves, seven and a half months pregnant, was arrested for murder. Lawless called five county jails with medical facilities as far away as Morrow and Washington counties, but there were no takers.
“A lot of jails will not accept medical risk inmates because of the liability,” he said. “We are a sue happy world and if something would happen … ”
Seagraves represents a relatively new phenomenon at the county jail — an increase of women prisoners.
“When I started in 1986, three or four females in jail, that was a large number,” Lawless said. “Now we have 24 females housed. Females are committing as many crimes as men. A lot are drug crimes.”
Those women inmates now take up a cellblock that once was exclusively for men.
Right now, to reduce some of the overcrowding, the county maintains a contract with Scioto County for 10 beds for which it pays $48 a day per bed or about $18 more a day than it costs to house an inmate in this county. The county pays that full contract rate whether it uses the space or not.
The county also has contracts with Morrow County at $50 per bed and Claremont County at $55, but Lawrence is charged only on an as-used basis.
A simple answer to the problem of overcrowding is to build a new jail. But it’s an answer with a huge price tag as the sheriff estimates a new jail would cost between $8 to $12 million. That $8 million figure dates back to a study made by an ad hoc jail committee in 2008 when it arbitrarily decided to determine financing packages for a 100-bed facility.
“It would be a ridiculous to build a jail that small in today’s situation,” Lawless said. “With a 140-bed jail our county would fill that up.”
Instead, to meet the county’s needs as far as public safety and to make new jail construction somewhat profitable, Lawless said building a 200-bed facility would be an answer.
“Then we could contract with other counties to make money,” he said.
But that still doesn’t answer the question of where to get the money. The last jail to be built with state funds was in Scioto County in 2006 for a cost of $ 12.5 million
However, looking to the state for help is no longer an option for Lawrence County.
“We were next on the list when funding went away,” Lawless said. “New construction grants to buy jail material have all dried up.”
So the only option appears to be a debt service levy that would put the burden of coming up with funds onto the county’s property owners. Financing $8 million at 3 percent interest, a current rate today, would be a .75 mill levy for a 20-year repayment period.
To put that into consumer dollars and cents, the levy would cost a property owner with a $50,000 home $11.48 a year or about $5.74 each time he paid his property tax; $17.23 a year or $8.62 twice a year for a $75,000 home and $22.97 for a $100,000 home or $11.49 twice a year.
Financing woes are not unique to Lawrence County and a few counties in Ohio and other states have embraced the concept of a regional jail, where multiple counties join forces to share jail space, construction and staffing costs.
“There are four regional jails in Ohio,” Dann said. “Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail, Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio, Tri-County Regional Jail and Marion-Hardin Regional Jail. The concept of the regional jail has been in effect for well over a decade.”
But Lawless says the geography of Lawrence County doesn’t lend itself to that option.
“The regional jail concept would work in areas north of us, but the way Lawrence County is situated, I don’t think it would be a good fit,” he said. “We would have to drive so far to lock someone up.”
For example, if an arrest were made in Proctorville and a deputy had to transport the prisoner to a regional jail headquartered in Jackson County, travel time coupled with arrest processing could take up the majority of that deputy’s shift.
Lawless’s deputies already understand that. When one of their prisoners is housed out of county, that inmate still remains the responsibility of Lawrence, not the custodial county.
“We have to go back to pick them up for court appearances and if they have medical issues that require them to go to the hospital, most jails make us come to pick them up,” Lawless said. “If we are in Morrow County, we have to drive an hour and a half to get to a hospital and back to the jail.”
But should the hurdle of funding for a new jail be scaled, that is only half the problem since new regulations require one corrections officer for every 10 inmates, more than twice the number of corrections officers at the county jail right now.
“Staff as well would be a higher expense,” Lawless said.
According to the current union contract, a corrections officer with the county who was one year’s experience makes $14.21 an hour. Add four more officers at that pay scale and that would increase the sheriff’s already strained $2.2 million budget by $500,000 to $600,000.
“We stay borrowing from one account to another,” he said. “We are robbing Peter to pay Paul. We could offset costs through housing prisoners from other counties.”
So as Lawless sees it finding a long-term solution rests in part with the taxpayers.
“The citizens of the county would have to be on board to support any more increases of their taxes,” he said. “Citizens would have to support such a move. You would have to sell them on it.”
That leaves a single question for the taxpayers to ask themselves, the sheriff says — “How much is their safety worth … to go to bed relatively safe?”