Tuesday, August 03, 1999

Jailers ponder out-of-the-box solutions to overcrowding

Open-air option a hit in Butler

The Cincinnati Enquirer

jail tent
Butler County inmates sit outside jail tents where they're being housed.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
        HAMILTON — Jail inmate Daniel Lallen has been working on his tan; practicing his curveball; and sleeping in the fresh, night air.

        As one of the first Butler County inmates to volunteer to stay in a tent to ease overcrowding, Mr. Lallen said doing time outdoors beats do ing it inside any day.

        “There's fresh air, not as many people. You can toss baseball or football anytime you want,” said Mr. Lallen, a minimum-security inmate who is one month into a one-year sentence for driving with a suspended license.

        The comfort level at many Tristate jails has long since been passed as more jail facilities are scrambling to cope with overcrowding. Inmates are getting out of jail early in some cases; in others, inmates are shipped to other counties, which house them for a fee.

        “Jails are like Field of Dreams. If you build them, they will come,” said Tim Oliver, Warren County prosecutor and chairman of the Community Corrections Planning Board. “You've got to do creative things.”

        Warren and Hamilton counties use alternative sentencing to prevent overcrowding. But Butler County Sheriff Harold Don Gabbard has come up with what state corrections officials say is a unique approach.

        Sheriff Gabbard made a preliminary attempt last year to put inmates under tents, but said he couldn't get a state go-ahead. This year's overcrowding — the minimum-security Resolutions Center was designed for 80 inmates but averages 185 inmates in the summer — prompted him to proceed without awaiting permission.

        Sheriff Gabbard said he has kept city officials informed and sent a letter to the state about the tent jail.

        Officials said the jail will be used only during warm weather — the sheriff and top deputies tested it during the heat wave by spending Friday night in it.

        Clermont County Jail officials will begin transferring medium- and maximum-security male inmates, possibly as early as today, to jails in Morrow and Pickaway counties, near Columbus.

        Clermont commissioners last week allocated $300,000 to contract with facilities there through Dec. 31: $55 per day each for 10 inmates in Pickaway, $50 a day each for 30 inmates in Morrow.

        The Clermont jail is designed to hold 264 and has been above capacity for all but 14 days this year, according to administrative Sgt. Dave Barr.

        Inmates are being housed in holding cells and cell block day-rooms converted into dorms, which have 30 bunk beds. On a recent annual jail inspection, however, state officials said such measures were acceptable only on a short-term, limited basis.

        Clermont officials looked into a tent jail, but decided against it because of security and health concerns and the potential for lawsuits.

        Clermont County Sheriff A.J. “Tim” Rodenberg on Monday called the contracting-out arrangement a necessary Band-Aid until the jail can be expanded — a project likely to take several years.

        “This will give us some breathing room,” he said. Sgt. Barr called the situation “a pressure cooker.”

        One county's problem is another's windfall, Pickaway County Sheriff Dwight Radcliff said.

        Pickaway has 110 beds and few local criminals. But foresight has bloated the county's general fund.

        Pickaway contracts with Clermont, Clinton, Fairfield, Lawrence and Jackson counties, as well as with federal authorities.

        “Last year we cleared $800,000 taking in other people's inmates,” Sheriff Radcliff said. “And that's what we built it for. Only thing I regret is we didn't build it bigger.”

        Southwest Ohio officials say the de mand for jail space has been increased by circumstances beyond local control — mandatory sentencing for DUI offenders and an attempt by state legislators to purge prison populations by shifting fourth-and fifth-degree felons to the county jails.

        As a result, municipal court judges in Clermont have been approving for early release about 10 inmates per week because of overcrowding, according to Municipal Judge Thomas Herman.

        They comb jail reports for nonviolent, nonrepeat offenders, particularly those for whom an alternative — such as alcohol counseling — is available.

        “It's these DUIs and multiple offenders that scare us,” Judge Herman said. “When I started as a judge (1992), I thought the hardest part would be finding out who should go to jail. Determining who to let out is the hard part.”

        • In Warren County, the county jail has a capacity of 175. Its average daily population is 146.

        Officials there have used alternative sentences. For the year ending June 30, 149 offenders in Warren County were sentenced either to house arrest, community service, electronic monitoring or job placement.

        • In Hamilton County, the jail has a capacity of 2,265 in four facilities — the Hamilton County Justice Center, Queensgate, Talbert House and Turning Point.

        On July 27, the inmate population was 1,951, more than 300 below capacity.

        Hamilton County operates seven alternative sentencing programs. On July 27, 645 people were serving sentences through those programs.

        • In Northern Kentucky, slower processing of prisoners by the state combined with rising crime rates are aggravating overcrowding, said law enforcement officials.

        “I don't think there's a jail in the state of Kentucky that's not overcrowded,” said Campbell County Jailer Greg Buckler. On Monday, the jail held 47 more inmates, 182, than it is designed to accommodate.

        Although the Kentucky Corrections Cabinet is supposed to move its prisoners out of county jails within 45 days, Northern Kentucky jailers complained that it rarely happens, because state prisons are full.

        “If there's no room in the inn, then we've got to keep them,” said Kenton County Jailer Terry Carl.

        Through the end of May, the Kentucky Department of Corrections was housing about 820 prisoners in county jails, said Carol Czirr, spokeswoman for the department.

        The Butler tents may be a seasonal feature of the jail for at least one or two more summers, said Butler County Jail Warden Norman Lewis.

        The jail planned for Hanover Street in east Hamilton will have 440 beds, but the estimated $32 million jail will be expandable to accommodate 707 beds, said Capt. Lewis. It won't open for at least wo years.

        Officials from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) were surprised that the Butler Sheriff had already placed inmates under tents.

        “They still haven't contacted us. This raises some serious issues like fire and safety issues,” said Joe Andrews, spokesman for ODRC.

        Despite Butler County's unsuccessful attempt last year to gain state permission to construct tent jails, state corrections officials are not automatically opposed to them, Mr. Andrews said.

        The state can take no immediate action against county law enforcement officials unless it becomes “a life-threatening situation,” said Mr. Andrews.


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