A class-action federal civil lawsuit brought by inmates against Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer seeks relief from overcrowding and related issues at the Montgomery County Jail similar to a 1989 action that led to construction of the building’s newer section.
The named plaintiffs, Nicholas Alston and Keith Barber, were among 16 inmates who wrote a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Walter Rice detailing allegations of cruel and unusual punishment at the hands of corrections officers.
The lawsuit is brought by four named partners at their respective law firms — Lawrence Greger, Anthony Cicero, David Greer and Anthony VanNoy — and Ellis Jacobs from Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE).
“The entire community recognizes that conditions at the Montgomery County Jail are unacceptable and have been that way for far too long. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” said Jacobs, adding that he is working with a notable group of attorneys.
“By filing the complaint, we are asking the federal court to become involved — as it has in the past — to ensure that the jail is being operated in a way that protects the safety of inmates, staff and the overall community.”
The complaint cited a November 2016 jail inspection report that said the recommended inmate population is 443 but that 791 people were being housed.
Plummer doesn’t control the number of inmates in the jail and said that total is affected by many factors, including judge and bail decisions and state legislation that keeps convicted fifth-degree felony offenders in local jail instead of prison.
“The criminal justice community along with the judges have done an excellent job managing the jail population,” Plummer said Wednesday. “Today, right now, I have 780 inmates. I have 910 beds, so we have 130 open beds right now. We’re not overcrowded.”
Montgomery County spokeswoman Cathy Petersen said Wednesday that the commissioners and county administrator have not seen the lawsuit “and therefore, it would be inappropriate to comment on it.”
Attached exhibits included the 1989 consent decree written by Rice. Greger was the lead attorney in the Larry Watson v. Gary Haines case that preceded the construction of the newer portion of the jail.
“We all shared an interest in pursuing the litigation,” Greger said of his partners in this lawsuit.
Rice’s consent decree in 1989 mandated that only 361 inmates be housed in the older, smaller version of the jail. It also addressed medical care, inmate recreation, food service and compliance standards.
Other attachments with the lawsuit show emails sent to judges and other county officials showing jail populations ranging from 813 to 862 in early July.
The suit — at least the 12th against jail personnel filed since 2014 — cites “deliberate indifference to constitutional, statutory and administrative mandates including but not limited to jail over-crowding, classification of inmates, recreation and the imposition of punishment in the form of lock-downs in an arbitrary and capricious manner.”
An inmate’s hand-written letter mentions issues such as recreation time, broken telephones, people facing misdemeanor charges being housed alongside first-degree felony inmates in cramped quarters and treatment by officers:
“The (officers feel) that as long as they have control over us inmates that they can begin our punishment before we have been convicted,” the letter says.
The inmates say they are housed for 22 hours per day — which goes against Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction standards — that there are racial discrimination issues and that several inmates have mental health and/or drug addiction problems and can dangerous.
AWARD-WINNING INVESTIGATION: Justice in the Jailhouse
The complaint included a quote from a recent Dayton Daily News article in which a jail consultant from GCL Companies described his tour of the Montgomery County facility’s narrow hallways and sudden turns.
“It’s one of the few areas I’ve been in, out of hundreds of jails and prisons I’ve been in over the years, where I felt unsafe,” Brad Sassatelli said in the article.
Plummer has said he has asked for funds to deal with inmates with mental health and drug issues. He said jail staff try to use the newer parts rather than the older areas.
“It is what it is,” said Plummer, adding the oldest part of the jail could be considered very substandard by modern standards. “We have a 1964 facility and we do the best we can.
“Our job is to feed them, house them and make sure they stay within them walls. That’s the unfair thing (that) the sheriff gets sued for this. It’s a community problem.”
Plummer said county budgets during his tenure haven’t allowed for any new jail construction funding.
“It’s just an antiquated jail and it needs changed,” the sheriff said. “We’ve gone through years of bad times. The county can’t afford it right now, you know? So you just make ends meet.”
Asked if he would be OK if the new lawsuit ultimately leads to new construction like the 1989 action did, Plummer said, “Absolutely. Society’s changed, but the jail structure hasn’t, so maybe it is time we go to the taxpayers and see if they want to fund a new jail.”
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