‘Take state up on offer’

Published 11:34 am Thursday, May 1, 2014

Calling it a huge mistake if Lawrence County turns down the state’s offer of a new jail, the county’s prosecutor and an Ironton attorney defended taking over part of the former Ohio River Valley Juvenile Correctional Facility in Franklin Furnace.

Their support was made in light of county officials’ concern that, while they could use the facility, they say they can’t afford to operate it.

Earlier this year the state offered use of a 100-bed unit at the former juvenile center to Lawrence County. But to move the jail down to Scioto County would mean adding 23 more on staff, which with other higher costs such as insurance, utilities and food, would end up at a total cost of $3,034,759 or an additional $1,534,759 over the jail’s current budget.

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That is money some county officials say they don’t have. They want the state to provide up to $5 million in funds over a three-year transitional period to make the move.

“That is a cop-out,” attorney J.T. Holt told the jail committee chaired by Commissioner Bill Pratt at a meeting on Wednesday. “You know the state. You know (that request) will be turned down. You will put (the blame) on the state.”

Holt criticized figures the county is using to determine the cost of the possible move including $925,548 for insurance for 39 employees when insurance costs for the current 16 officers are $176,000.

“These numbers are inflated big time,” Holt said. “I guarantee the numbers are inflated. The state of Ohio is doing something unprecedented, offering a state of the art facility.”

For several years the county’s current jail has been in non-compliance, failing state inspections with the major complaint as overcrowding. If the county followed state standards, only 16 prisoners should be housed there. A recent variance upped that figure to 27, but daily census can average between 70 and 100 inmates. On Tuesday there were 71 prisoners plus 10 housed out of the county.

That situation will lead to lawsuits, Holt said.

“The county will get sued,” he said. “The county will go bankrupt. Lawyers will get rich. You guys are violating the Eighth Amendment. You have an obligation to provide a legal jail. You are going to bankrupt the county. That is not acceptable.”

Also at the meeting was South Point Councilman Jeff Gaskin, a member of the jail committee, who argued that most people are not concerned about the state of the current jail.

“There are 15 or 20 who give a damn about that jail,” Gaskin said. “People don’t care how prisoners are treated.”

Right now there are 16 officers at the Fifth Street jail. However, if the jail were moved to Franklin Furnace, staffing would have to increase, Sheriff Jeff Lawless told the committee. He estimates that figure would increase to 39. However, the state estimated that level at approximately 45 officers.

“The state will not let me run the jail with the current staffing level,” he said. “It has to be safe. There is no way I can get the job done with indoor and outdoor recreation and getting people to court (with current staffing).”

Pratt blamed state cutbacks of the Local Government Fund for the situation the county is now facing. Those funds have shrunk from $1,347,000 in 2008 to $612,000 in 2013.

“The state helped create the problem with the Local Government Fund shortfall,” Pratt said. “They can help fix the problem.”

However County Prosecuting Attorney Brigham Anderson agreed with Holt that it is unlikely the state will offer operational money for the jail.

“I don’t think that is a potential solution,” Anderson said. “We are not going to get money for jail operations from the state.”

Yet Anderson said there could be other avenues to find operational funds that he, Lawless and Pratt will explore at a meeting with Gary Mohr, director of Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, on May 12, in Columbus.

The state wants an answer on the ORVJC offer by May 15. In February the property was put on the auction block with the highest bid at $605,000 that was from the Ohio Juvenile Academy and Corrections LLC from Garfield Heights that filed articles of organization with the Secretary of State on Feb. 5. That bid is still open.