County jail deaths add sense of urgency to advisory group’s review

Two inmates died in the Montgomery County Jail within the span of three meetings of a new advisory committee, adding weight to the work of the group formed to review the jail’s policies and procedures, said one of the leaders.

“There is a sense of urgency,” said Rabbi Bernard Barsky, co-chair of the Justice Committee for the Montgomery County Jail, at the committee’s fourth meeting Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, this news organization first reported online an analysis of jail records from last October provided by a former corrections officer that indicated white female inmates were housed in nicer cells than black female inmates last October.

RELATED: Are black female inmates given smaller cells at county jail?

Dr. Gary LeRoy, the other co-chair, said housing of women will be among the issues examined by the group. The subcommittee looking at civil rights and prisoner grievances plans to take “a deep dive” looking at allegations of mistreatment based on race or other factors, he said.

“We want to find out if these things are indeed truthful and there’s evidence of that and see how we can prevent that from happening in the future,” LeRoy said.

Sheriff Phil Plummer said allegations of segregation by race are baseless and that inmate classification is carried out by type of crime, violence, age, mental illness, history and other factors, he said.

“Classification isn’t done by race,” Plummer said. “It’s done by all those variables.”

The independent advisory committee was formed in March to tamp down calls for a federal civil rights probe after a series of civil lawsuits by inmates claiming mistreatment.

RELATED: Oversight committee picked to monitor Montgomery County Jail

At least nine lawsuits have been filed on behalf of inmates or former inmates, including one involving the death of Robert Richardson, who died May 19, 2012. The lawsuit alleges several jail employees handcuffed and subdued Richardson on his stomach outside a cell door while he was having a medical emergency.

RELATED: 9 current lawsuits against Montgomery County Jail employees

While the committee has no legal authority to order changes to jail policies, procedures or facilities, the group was given two years to present county commissioners with recommendations on all those aspects.

“The charge of the committee is to find out basically what are the best practices out there we can institute in the Montgomery County jail system so we don’t have misadventures happening with people who are occupants of the jail itself,” LeRoy said.

So far, the committee has yet to move beyond fact-finding and information gathering — which included a tour of the jail — according to the co-chairs. Subcommittees have been formed to focus on medical and behavioral health and jail staffing issues in addition to that related to civil rights.

After a long discussion Tuesday, committee members agreed to pursue the services of a consulting firm to help identify potential problems and help crystallize solutions for the committee before final recommendations to commissioners.

Montgomery County Jail book-ins number about 26,000 annually. The jail has a capacity of 914 beds, of which approximately 843 are occupied on any given day at a cost of $61.75 per inmate. The female population of the jail averages from 18 to 22 percent of the total population and has been as high as 25 percent, according to sheriff’s department figures.

“It’s just very complicated, and we have to unwrap all of that,” LeRoy said. “It’s not a quick process.”

RELATED: Montgomery County creates jail oversight committee

Among the most complicated to currently deal with are inmates with mental health and substance use issues, said Carole Smerz, CEO of South Community Behavioral Healthcare, who is on the health subcommittee.

“If you have someone who’s in an area they need to be watched 24/7,” she said, “how do you manage that when you have all these people coming in, coming out?”

Committee member Branford Brown, executive director of the Miami Valley Urban League, Dayton, said he has “some questions and some information I’d like to see from the sheriff’s department” including the ratio of male to female staff per shift, details on officer training and whether that includes instruction about implicit bias, and the office’s use of force policy.

“I feel this would be a good way to move forward,” he said.

The next meeting is scheduled Sept. 12.

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