After 14 lawsuits, cultural changes needed at county jail, watchdogs say

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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Sheriff, leaders reach agreement on jail plan

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

County leaders worry about funding, and watchdogs say cultural changes still needed after 14 lawsuits.

The Montgomery County Jail is poorly designed, overcrowded and understaffed, according to a community group appointed after numerous problems and lawsuits.

Their proposed solution: build a new jail.

“The level of overcrowding critically strains the monitoring of inmates and delivery of services,” said Rabbi Bernard Barsky, a co-chair of the Justice Committee for the Montgomery County Jail, the citizen group that prepared the study.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Citizen group’s jail report calls for humane treatment of inmates

Barsky and fellow co-chair, Dr. Gary LeRoy, presented the report to county commissioners and about 50 more including others in county government, those in law enforcement and citizens from community justice and watchdog groups.

But some in the community say a new – or substantially modified – jail won’t fix all the problems alleged in a majority of the lawsuits against jail staff and the county.

“You can get a new building, but if you don’t change the culture or the atmosphere of the employees – the corrections officer in that building — you’re going to get the same results,” said Keith Lander of Dayton. “You’ve got to change the culture – what caused all those lawsuits – and as far as I’m concerned, I don’t see any of that changing.”

MORE: Sheriff won’t allow jail group to interview inmates

The county won’t discount building a new jail, but the prospect of a fresh build is unlikely, said Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert.

“We’re probably more realistically looking at a major jail enhancement. This is a huge project,” he said. “How do we envision something using our existing jail — that has good bones? Maybe repurposing the old jail, the more rectangular portion of the jail into programing, and then maybe adding on additional pods or a superpod.”

Colbert said whichever way the county goes, it could take five to six years to get a new or upgraded facility.

Not ‘a minimally adequate environment’

The report was the result of nearly two years of work by the citizen committee formed after a raft of federal civil rights lawsuits threatened to spark a Justice Department investigation into the facility’s operations.

Barsky read the main conclusion:

“The Montgomery County Jail facility does not provide a minimally adequate environment for staff or inmates. Renovation or remodeling to address the many problems with the facility is neither practical nor cost-effective. The county should commence planning for the ultimate replacement of this building with a modern correctional facility that can house offenders in a humane manner, provide needed program services, and afford staff and inmates a safe environment.”

MORE: Work of Montgomery County Jail oversight committee shielded from the public

The original part of the jail was built in 1965, with substantial additions to the facility in 1993 and 2004, according to the county.

The committee also providing county commissioners 93 recommendations for improving the jail facility, policies and procedures.

At least 14 lawsuits alleging the mistreatment of inmates have been filed in recent years, including since the committee formed in March 2017. A federal class-action lawsuit filed last July alleged overcrowding, and in December an inmate filed a suit naming as defendants, the county’s board of commissioners, former Sheriff Phil Plummer, as well as the man she claims sexually assaulted her in jail, former corrections officer Franco R. Villella.

MORE: Inmate allegedly sexually assaulted in jail bathroom stall files lawsuit

Montgomery County and its insurers have paid a price defending and settling lawsuits related to the jail. Already above $1 million last year, the county and its insurers will pay $3.5 million this year to the family of Robert A. Richardson Sr., who died in 2012 while handcuffed face down in the jail.

Sheriff: ‘I am confident today we will fix it”

The report indicates that the jail houses nearly twice as many inmates than is currently accepted. Based on the Ohio Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Standards for Jails, the facility should house no more than 443 inmates, according to the report.

Montgomery County Sheriff Rob Streck said the jail will hold 966 inmates and on Tuesday the jail population was 724. He said evolving state recommendations make the county’s current jail numbers appear harsher than reality, but he recognizes the newest standards must still be met.

MORE: Federal lawsuit seeks action for Montgomery County Jail overcrowding

“I just want people to understand we do not have people sleeping on floors and things like that,” he said. “But it doesn’t meet the requirements of today’s recommendations.”

“I am confident today we will fix it … but at the time those requirements were approved (by the state).” Streck said. “Those sheriffs who were involved in that thought they were doing the right thing at the time. The problem is our population — even since this committee was formed two years ago — has drastically changed. We have more mental health issues and we have a sicker population.”

The Justice Committee’s recommendation of a new jail came as “the biggest surprise,” to Montgomery County Commission President Debbie Lieberman.

“A whole new jail is a huge undertaking,” she said. “You’re probably talking $70 million that we certainly don’t have.”

Improvements underway now

It’s unclear how a jail rebuild would get paid for, Lieberman said.

Warren County is about to begin construction on a complex housing its sheriff’s office and jail to hold more than 460 inmates at a price tag of $57 million. Franklin County is spending about $400 million on an approximately 2,170-bed jail, according to the Columbus Dispatch. Both are expected to be completed in 2021.

Recent criminal justice initiatives, including those at the jail, are being paid for by a quarter-percent increase in sales taxes that went in place last year.

A boost in health services spending to $4.7 million in 2019 added three more health care providers, bringing the total to more than 39 full-time equivalent positions. Within the last two years, the jail also hired a treatment coordinator and treatment case manager, according to the county.

Work is underway on the jail’s first floor, where an $8 million project will improve the floor intake, rebuild a central command area, and add a medical ward, mental health and substance abuse areas that will provide direct supervision of inmates.

MORE: Lawyer: $3.5M jail death settlement ‘huge victory for the family

County commissioners have asked the administration to form work groups to begin dissecting the recommendations and examine the physical infrastructure, Colbert said.

Citizen watchdog Yvonne Curington of Harrison Twp., who attended the Justice Committee meetings over the last two years when not closed to the public, said she hopes the recommendations will be taken seriously by county commissioners and the sheriff.

“I don’t want to have this nice big meeting and this nice process and have recommendations just be tossed on a shelf somewhere and never looked at,” she said. “Something has to happen. People have to be treated like human beings.”

Montgomery County Jail By The Numbers

1965 — Year oldest portion of jail was built

49 — Number of inmates detoxing in jail on Tuesday

966 — Number of beds sheriff says available in jail

724 —Number of inmates housed in jail on Tuesday

443 —Maximum number of inmates jail should have based on Ohio Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's Standards for Jails

Sources: Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office

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