Montgomery County puts new jail on table; project could total $140M

Group concerned a 937-bed facility would leave authorities ‘looking for more bodies’



Montgomery County has asked an architect already working on jail enhancements to now provide an option for building a new 937-bed facility at the corner of North Perry and West Second streets and estimate costs for demolishing the existing nearby jail.

But a local jail watchdog group says Montgomery County needs fewer beds — not more — and that county officials haven’t kept the community in the loop about any new expansion plans.

A 937-bed jail would more than double the number of beds recommended by an earlier citizen group’s study of the jail, said Daj’za Demmings, executive director of the Dayton Young Black Professionals and Montgomery County Jail Coalition member.

“That doesn’t help,” she said. “You have more beds, you’re looking for more bodies. People are getting arrested for jaywalking. People are getting arrested for traffic things.”

Last month, county commissioners expanded an agreement with Henningson, Durham & Richardson, or HDR, for the Chicago-based firm to deliver the county more options, including a full build of a new jail. The firm was hired in 2019 to design options that included modernizing the current facility or a hybrid plan to modernize the current jail and add an annex, according to the county.

HDR’s needs assessment and the amount of funding available will determine the course of action for the project, said Deb Decker, Montgomery County’s communications director.

“The steps the county and HDR are taking now will help ensure we are able to have a jail that will take us through the next 30 years,” she said.

Decker said the makeup of the inmate population has changed dramatically since the original jail construction in the 1960s, with many more women and more facing mental health issues and battling drug and alcohol addiction.

“HDR Is not looking to help us house more inmates; they are looking at ways to help us do a better job of properly housing the number of inmates we have now,” she said.

Increasing capacity is not the county’s main priority but is being considered due to possible increases in the county’s general population in coming decades, Decker said. More thought is being given to security and safety with more space devoted to beds allocated for women and for those detoxing, inmates with mental health issues or those who need their health monitored.

Credit: Chris Stewart

Credit: Chris Stewart

County commissioners last week approved a resolution to seek a $40 million jail capital improvement grant from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, which was sent to the state Tuesday, according to the county.

The county’s grant application to the state indicates a total project cost of $140 million with $94 million earmarked for new construction. The application shows the jail deficient in space requirements and exceeded the Bureau of Adult Detention’s rated 443 inmate capacity each day of a 30-day reporting period.

Montgomery County Jail Coalition members gathered Wednesday near the existing jail on West Second Street in downtown Dayton to demand the county be open about any jail modifications and bring the community to the table.

Members said they have unsuccessfully sought information for more than a year from county officials about jail expansion and or renovation plans. For the past several months, members have written letters, sought meetings with the county administrator and county commissioners, posed questions at county commission meetings and filed multiple public records requests they claim fell on deaf ears.

“It is alarming and unacceptable to launch multi-million-dollar plans without a single public meeting and without any mechanism for public input, especially by those who will be most directly impacted by this jail,” Demmings said.

The formation of the Justice Advisory Committee provided the community with a voice in determining changes and no “multi-million-dollar” plans have been launched yet, Decker said. Once HDR, which will be paid about $540,000 for services, provides the county with options the county will reengage with the public to select the best path forward, she said.

The Justice Advisory Committee was formed in March 2017 in response to a raft of federal civil rights lawsuits alleging mistreatment of inmates. Other lawsuits followed alleging overcrowding and a sexual assault on an inmate. The committee’s examination, concluded in 2019, urged county commissioners to replace the current jail it deemed irredeemable.

The existing jail was built in 1964. New pods were installed in the early 1990s and dormitories were added to the facilities in 2008, according to the county.

The Justice Advisory Committee provided county commissioners 93 recommendations for improving the jail facility, policies and procedures. The report indicated the jail typically housed double the number of its design capacity, which in the early 1990s was 443, and needed dozens of additional staff members.

Story continues after jail report.

The jail held 727 inmates on Wednesday, according to county records.

“We recognize that, while in compliance with the majority of standards set by the Bureau of Adult Detention and accredited by the American Correctional Association, we are overcrowded,” Decker said. “This overcrowding prevents us from providing the level of care and services we need to provide vital treatment services to the jail population.”

As many as half of inmates have chronic medical conditions, roughly 40% are on psychotropic drugs for severe mental health conditions and 40% to 60% of all inmates are immediately placed on detox protocols for substance abuse, according to Montgomery County Sheriff Rob Streck.

“The current jail design does not support treatment services, because the jail we are using is designed to meet the individuals’ needs decades ago,” he said. “A lot has changed.”

A jail is still a jail and the wrong place for those with substance use disorders or mental illness, said Theresa G. Haire, a Montgomery County public defender.

“They know they are in jail and they are at the whim of whomever is working that shift when they need emergency help,” she said. “Making a special wing in the jail to house them is not the way to solve the problem.”

The Montgomery County Jail Coalition is concerned that the county will focus on increasing capacity without looking at policies and programs that might divert people from jail, such as bail reform, citation in lieu of arrest and community-based treatment.

“Spending millions in taxpayer money without putting in place common sense justice reforms will only result in another facility plagued by abuse,” said coalition member Joel R. Pruce, an associate professor of human rights studies at the University of Dayton.

Decker said the county agrees that bail reform and other diversion programs could be used to minimize the jail population, but those measures require state legislation.

“We are hoping they are bringing those up to the appropriate people in Columbus,” she said.

The jail population can be limited to 450 and the coronavirus pandemic provided a perfect example when area jurisdictions avoided booking non-violent individuals to thwart spread of the disease,Haire said.

“There wasn’t mayhem in the streets. The crime rate didn’t go up. Everything was okay,” she said. “It’s okay to let non-violent people out of jail. To keep them as some of our misdemeanor courts do for not paying off fines, or whatever the issue is, is wrong and it’s dangerous.”

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