Sheriff: Jail conditions worsening

Published 10:38 am Friday, June 12, 2015

Ninety-two prisoners were in the Lawrence County Jail on Monday. That is 65 more than the state says should be housed there.

On top of that 22 inmates were in jails at Scioto and Morrow counties.

Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless says he needs help and he wants it now.

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In three separate letters the sheriff is reaching out to the county commissioners, judges and all police departments in the county to find solutions to the long-standing overcrowding at the jail.

Long-term the sheriff wants more money to hire additional corrections officers, move the county jail to the ORV facility the state has offered the county or build a new jail.

Short-term Lawless is asking all four judges if there are any inmates who could be sent home.

“The conditions now are not safe for inmates or staff,” Lawless writes in a letter addressed to Common Pleas Judges Scott Bowling and Charles Cooper and Municipal Judges O. Clark Collins and Donald Capper. “We are experiencing numerous fights between inmates and we have no way to separate or lock prisoners down due to the layout of the jail, conditions of the jail and the overcrowding of the jail.

“I am asking each of you to please look over the prisoners in your respective courts and see if there are any prisoners that can be released or placed on a home monitoring bracelet.”

Right now there are two corrections’ officers per 10-hour shift. If an inmate has to be taken to the hospital for an illness, that leaves only one officer there for the entire complex.

“I think we need at least four (officers), six would be awesome,” he said.

Although so far there have been no real acts of violence, the excessive number of inmates at the facility could make it the perfect storm, the sheriff said.

“It will escalate into something when you get that many people in a tight confinement,” he said. “If it continues to go on, it has the potential of becoming worse.”

Historically, census increases in the summer. Over the weekend that number hit 111 and was cut down to 89 by sending 22 inmates out of county. In two days the census was back at 95.

“You call these other jails and hardly anyone has any space,” Lawless said.

The county has had a longstanding contractual arrangement with Scioto County Jail. However for the past two weeks, that jail has been unable to take any Lawrence prisoners because of a series of drug raids in its county, the sheriff said.

On top of the request to the judges, Lawless also sent letters to the six police departments in the county and the Ohio State Highway Patrol stating the jail will only accept arrests for warrants, violent crimes and major felonies.

“We cannot accept misdemeanors with the exception of domestic violence,” he writes.

All other arrests will result in the individual being cited to court, meaning he will not be taken to jail, but required to bring himself to court. That would include such crimes as shoplifting and DUI.

“It puts everybody in a bind,” Lawless said. “If you have a drunk, even if he is just disorderly and has caused problems at a bar, (the officer) has to drive away and leave the person there or find someone to take him. The officer would have the choice to find another jail and take him there. But the Lawrence County Jail is full.”

Habitual DUIs could be taken to Lawrence County Jail to get sober and then be released.

Writing the letters was a difficult task, the sheriff said.

“It makes me sick to my stomach,” he said. “There are people who need to be arrested and removed from a situation. To limit that puts our county in danger. Crime is on the rise and our jail is way beyond its years. We have got to get this ORV up and running or build a new jail. We have kicked this can down the road and there is no more road to kick the can down.”