The Montgomery County Jail Coalition is made up of local organizations and concerned residents committed to decreasing the number of individuals housed in the county jail. This year, the Coalition has monitored with grave concern the ongoing death crisis in the jail. In 2023 so far, seven people have died, a figure greater than any other county in Ohio and equal to the infamous Rikers Island in New York City, a jail that houses ten times as many people as we do in downtown Dayton. These concerns led the Coalition to ask Sheriff Rob Streck for a meeting. He responded by inviting the Coalition to send a delegation to take a tour of the jail.
So, on July 12, Sheriff Streck, along with several other jail administrators and Sheriff’s office representatives, took six members of the Coalition on a guided tour of the jail. These members were able to view the intake area, jail health facilities, cells in the old portion of the jail (built in the 1960s), as well as pods holding both male and female detainees, among other areas. During the tour, Coalition members also were able to ask jail administrators and staff questions.
The tour confirmed the view of the Coalition that the jail simply is not an appropriate place to house individuals in the midst of a mental health or addiction crisis, such as drug withdrawal. Sheriff’s Office representatives appeared to agree. Several times Sheriff’s Office representatives expressed that the jail is not a hospital and is not equipped to provide care commensurate with a hospital. For instance, Sheriff Streck himself stated that the area utilized for housing individuals experiencing a mental health crisis provides too much stimulation for someone in that condition. Soon after the tour, it was reported that that four additional registered nurses will be hired to conduct medical evaluations of detainees, rather than EMTs, upon their arrival at the jail, which may provide improved care but, by itself, is not sufficient.
Instead, Montgomery County needs to provide more opportunities for deflection and pre-arrest diversion for those suffering from mental health and addiction issues to facilities with services where they can receive adequate care. There are some encouraging nascent efforts in the County along these lines. A new mental health and addiction crisis center, the Montgomery County Behavioral Health Emergency Services Crisis Receiving Center, is supposed to open this summer at the former St. Elizabeth health facility. Moreover, the City of Dayton’s new Mediation Response Unit deploys its teams instead of police to aid people experiencing a mental health crisis. However, the new crisis center is planning to open with only sixteen chairs, and additional local police departments (including at the county level) need to utilize crisis response teams, in order to connect people in need with appropriate resources. The sheer number of people struggling with severe mental health and addiction issues means that we need more facilities outside of the jail with many more beds available to provide effective treatment. Furthermore, the need for such alternatives is urgent as the number of deaths in the jail this year highlights.
An additional and critical ingredient is the role of Naphcare, the for-profit company contracted by Montgomery County to provide health care to detainees in the jail. Naphcare has a notorious record nationwide for deceptive practices, death, and negligence, leading to many costly lawsuits and financial settlements, including locally back in 2018. Naphcare’s contract with the County expires at the end of 2023, and the Coalition believes the question of whether or not to renew Naphcare’s contract, given the death crisis this year, demands intense scrutiny.
The tour of the jail reaffirmed the position of the Montgomery County Jail Coalition: No one should have to get arrested to get help, which is why we need to incarcerate far fewer people while building up community-based support services to give our neighbors and our family members a chance at a new beginning. As a community, working in partnership with law enforcement, judges, public health, commissioners, and concerned county residents, we need to continue to support innovative solutions to the profound problems we face. The jail will never be the answer.
Michael Loudenslager is a staff attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc (ABLE).