Old jails like Montgomery County’s a common problem for Ohio counties

The Montgomery County jail has over the years turned classrooms, rec rooms — any available space — into housing space for inmates. Though the ad hoc rehab and expansion of a 58-year old building has come with mixed results.

Sheriff Rob Streck on a Thursday morning tour with the Dayton Daily News showed the old sheriff’s office that was converted years ago to hold more beds, which gets leaks during the rain and has water stains on the floor.

“Because of the weather right now, we emptied it out,” Streck said.

ExploreMontgomery County puts new jail on hold, cites lack of funding

Montgomery County now is facing a similar issue seen around the state: what to do about an old jail being used to house more people with different needs than when it was first built. Montgomery County’s jail sometimes holds double the people it was built to house.

County leaders recently said that they think the best option would be to build a new facility, as proposed by a contractor hired to detail their options. However, leaders also paused any plans for a new jail, citing funding problems and not wanting to go out on a financial limb during pandemic uncertainty.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

A new jail could cost $177 million to $202 million for 938 beds, according to estimates. The current jail is rated to hold 444 beds, but as of Dec. 23 had 898 general population beds and 12 special needs beds.

A grassroots group called the Montgomery County Jail Coalition has also held town halls and press conferences opposing building a larger new jail. Different organizers have spoke out in favor of more people in mental health treatment outside of the jail and more people out on bail, among ways to reduce the need for a larger jail.

“We don’t disagree that the jail needs renovation or that the detainees and staff need a facility that can keep them all much safer,” said Joel Pruce, with the coalition. “I think the single overarching question for us is the question of why not take this opportunity to rethink how we do everything, rather than fall into the routine of needing to build bigger?”

Edwin Fuller, also with the coalition, said they want transparency and public feedback to be used for future decisions on what to do about the facility.

ExplorePREVIOUS COVERAGE: Local jails overcrowded, failing safety standards, investigation shows

Montgomery County’s jail is not just holding more people than it was built for, but holding more people who need different treatment than it was built to give. At the time county officials announced plans for a new jail was on pause, about 35% of the jail population were being monitored for opioid withdrawal with another 34% were on psychotropic medications.

The jail has 12 beds considered “special needs” beds, for people with medical or mental health reasons to be in a room outside the general population. Some of those beds are actually rooms in intake and some of the rooms, while they should be used by one person at a time, house multiple people.

“To have intake where your special needs housing is, is not great,” Streck said.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

The proposal for a new jail that was shelved had called for about half and half general beds and special needs beds. The county is still looking into other financing options, like if there’s state or federal money available.

Like Montgomery County, officials around Ohio are grappling with jails that have fallen out-of-date and into disrepair.

Greene County is working on a plan to borrow about $40 million toward a 384-bed jail, the same size proposed for a sales tax ballot measure that was rejected in November.

The current jail has 382 beds, is 52 years old, and like Montgomery County, it too has been under a consent decree, which limits the jail population and prohibits overcrowding.

Officer locker rooms have been converted to detainee interview rooms, programming is conducted in jail administrator break rooms, and a sally port is unusable due to a crumbling foundation. In the lead up to the vote, the proposal also faced opposition from activists groups, also asking for more mental health and addiction treatment services.

ExploreAs county weighs new jail, advocates urge alternatives

Looking at the other major Ohio metros, Franklin County is aiming to open a new jail spring 2022. Cuyahoga is looking for a location for a new jail. Lucas County has made several attempts over the years to replace the downtown Toledo jail, with the latest tentative plans gaining some traction.

In December 2020, the Ohio General Assembly approved new money for jail renovations and out of that money, in October, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration announced a round of $50 million in grants awarded to Coshocton, Gallia, Harrison and Lawrence, and multi-county jails in Scioto and the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail (Athens, Hocking, Perry, Meigs, Morgan).

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Streck said the plan for now is to work the best they can with the current facility.

“We’ll make the best out of what we got right now, until we see if there’s any other options that come up,” Streck said.

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