The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office says it is conducting an internal investigation into allegations that female inmates are racially segregated at the jail.
The I-Team investigated the complaint and found that more than three-quarters of the 573 stays by black female inmates in the Montgomery County Jail from Oct. 1-12 were in 14 older, smaller cells.
The smaller cells house a dozen or so people each and offer little privacy or personal space, according to those interviewed.
“You have to use the restroom in front of 10 people,” said former corrections officer Erika Woodruff, who worked at the jail for more than 14 years. “You have to eat while someone is using the restroom. Nothing is private. They had mushrooms growing out of the wall because of the condensation.” Parts of the jail date to 1965, although it’s been renovated numerous times.
Jail records from the first part of October show the majority of the white female inmates were in two larger, “dorm-style” units that hold five times the population but also have more room per inmate and include bathroom doors.
“You’re able to walk around,” Woodruff said. “The air quality is better. You have more access to the CO (corrections officer) when you’re in the dormitory style housing.”
The I-Team shared its analysis of the jail housing data with the sheriff’s office Monday and requested an interview and opportunity to see the jail housing areas. The records were obtained using the Ohio Public Records Law.
In an email Thursday, jail commander Maj. Matt Haines said he has requested an “expedited” investigation.
“The Sheriff’s Office has an open internal investigation into the allegation of improperly classifying inmates,” Haines wrote. “For that reason we are not going to comment on this issue until the investigation is complete.”
The I-Team investigated after a group of corrections officers complained of racial discord at the sheriff’s office, including allegations that black female inmates were systemically placed in older, more crowded housing units than white females.
“It’s night and day,” corrections officer Russ Johnson said of the difference between the two types of housing units.
Between Oct.1 and Oct. 12, the jail had an average of 180 female inmates a day, totaling 2,128 stays during that time period. Of those stays, 26 percent were black women.
The population in the dorm-style units is 88 to 93 percent white, the housing records show.
The records offer only a snapshot of the housing situation, but Johnson and Woodruff say the data reflects how inmates are typically separated in the jail.
They said the segregation is the result of a couple of officers acting independently. For this reason, the male inmates are more integrated, they said. Both said they questioned the practice to their supervisors but no effort was made to investigate.
‘The inmates see it’
Corrections Officer Jerrid Campbell said segregation of female inmates is common knowledge inside the jail.
“The inmates see it,” he said.
Campbell and other officers say black officers are also treated differently than white officers.
For example, Campbell, who is black, said he was disciplined for not calling for assistance during a fight when he says he did seek help. Woodruff, who is also black, said she quit the sheriff’s office after racial issues culminating with her receiving a card from a white co-worker of a gorilla wearing a pink hat.
Sheriff Phil Plummer has taken steps to improve race relations in his department. He mandated department-wide diversity training last year after he fired two deputies and suspended three others for exchanging racist text messages.
The jail has 88 white corrections officers and 22 non-white corrections officers, records show.
Campbell and his supervisor, Sgt. Eric Banks, also filed a complaint that led to the demotion of then-Maj. Scott Landis, the former head of the jail. Landis was demoted to captain after saying in a meeting that Campbell should “go back to his thug life.” An internal probe also found Landis did not notify his supervisors of serious complaints.
Plummer said earlier this month that race is not a factor used in classifying and housing inmates. Claims of segregation were previously looked into by his command staff and found to lack merit, according to Plummer.
Classifying inmates is a challenge, especially as the female population grows, Plummer said. Classification is done 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.” .
Anthony Roebuck, a Dayton-area leader of the Stop Mass Incarceration Miami Valley Network, said an independent group should be established to review discrimination claims – similar to the city of Dayton’s Human Rights Council.
“If they investigate their own issues, then they can determine what the outcome is going to be,” Roebuck said. “There should be an independent investigator who comes in to view what’s going on and give an independent evaluation of the situation.”
State rules require county jails to have classification policies that separate inmates based on criteria that includes security level, special needs and history of violence.
The female cells at the Montgomery County jail routinely combine felony and misdemeanor-level suspects and offenders in both the dorm-style cells and older cells. On Oct. 1, for example, one of the larger cells had 22 women facing felony-level offenses and 25 facing lower-level offenses. Another area held 11 felons and 15 facing lower offenses. Smaller cells had only felons or misdemeanants or a combination of both.
Ohio’s prison system classifies inmates based on factors such as age, escape history, gang affiliation, medical and mental status and education history.
“Race is not a factor in our classification actions,” said JoEllen Smith, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections spokeswoman.
Some prison systems, such as California’s, do segregate by race to avoid accidental gang-mixing or race-based violence.
The most recent state inspection of the Montgomery County Jail in March found it generally “compliant” with state standards, though the standards inspected do not include segregation.
The jail fell short in four areas related to overcrowding: too little day space for prisoners – the state requires at least 35 square feet of space per inmate — and not enough seating, toilets or showers.
The jail holds up to 755 males and 159 females, the state inspection report says. That’s well above the 443 inmate ceiling the state corrections department says the jail can properly accommodate with its existing space.
The sheriff’s office website says the jail housed an average of 803 inmates per day in 2015. The average length of stay is 20 days for felons and 6 days for those serving time for misdemeanors.
Roebuck said giving some inmates unequal treatment reinforces the biases the black community feels from law enforcement and society.
“African-American women are being put in deplorable living areas and white women are being put in the nicer areas,” he said. “Everything we experience as African Americans are substantially different from what white America experiences.”