A 122-page citizen oversight report recommended a new Montgomery County jail, but also criticized jail policies, including when corrections officers are allowed to use force on inmates, and took aim at staffing levels so low they “near crisis proportion.”
The jail, which has spawned more than a dozen lawsuits claiming the mistreatment of inmates — including deaths — is “marred by critical understaffing,” said Rabbi Bernard Barsky, a co-chair of the Justice Committee, which recommended 59 additional positions be hired.
“The authorized level is significantly below the level required to meet the needs of the institution,” Barsky said when delivering the report to county commissioners Tuesday. “This creates an issue that is near crisis proportion.”
Many key aspects of the report were overshadowed by news of the committee calling for a new jail. But in addition to facilities and staffing, the group examined nine other topics, including training, use of force policies, standards of medical and behavioral health care provided at the jail and the inmate grievance process.
‘It keeps me up at night’
Understaffing results in excessive overtime, employee absenteeism, high employee turnover, lowered employee and inmate morale, and at times, operational problems, wrote the committee.
A single officer in the jail’s older linear units oversees 86 to 119 inmates. The jail’s newer pod units designed for capacity of 55 inmates each now hold more than 100 inmates each with no increase in staff to monitor them, Barsky said.
The use of overtime has become so pervasive there is regularly a lack of volunteers to work, and those that do suffer from burnout, according to the report.
During a randomly selected week in 2018 spanning April and May, 167 instances of overtime were needed to maintain minimum staffing levels, according to the report. Custody staff during the study period included 121 corrections officers, 11 sergeants, two captains and a major.
Montgomery County Sheriff Rob Streck said lack of staffing is a major concern.
“It keeps me up at night knowing my employees are working 12- and 16-hour days,” he said.
County commissioners funded 10 more jail positions for 2019, but he said “zero” of those have been filled.
“We are having trouble filling civilian positions, whether it’s dispatch or corrections officers,” he said.
Streck told the audience Tuesday that the sheriff’s office plans a new recruitment campaign that will place a focus on recruiting minorities, which are underrepresented in the ranks of correction officers.
“It is a problem that is very bad across the nation. It has always been bad, it’s always been a challenge,” he said.
Much of the report was based on the findings of CGL Companies, a professional consulting group hired by the committee, which then scrutinized and supplemented CGL’s findings for the final report to county commissioners and the sheriff.
Specific force policies needed
Use of force incidents occur regularly at the jail — about 18 times per month during the 15-month study period – but clearer policies are needed to ensure instances don’t become excessive, according to the report.
Jail data show 61 use of force incidents during the first quarter of 2018. Chemical agents were deployed in 19 cases. In seven, a Taser was used. In three instances, both a Taser and chemical agent were used to gain compliance of an inmate.
The sheriff’s office has a written use of force policy that mainly guides actions in the field, and its jail manual “provides little guidance to jail staff that is specific to their situations and environment,” the report reads.
Neither the sheriff’s office’s general orders nor jail manual addresses use of a restraint chair as a use of force.
“Placement in the restraint chair is considered a use of force and should be a last resort,” the committee wrote. It also cautions that other precautions, such as a review of an inmate’s medical record, need to be taken due to the potential for serious injuries that can be the result of restraint.
At least two lawsuits against the jail involving use of a restraint chair have been settled.
Inmate Amber Swink was pepper-sprayed by a corrections officer after put in a restraint chair in 2015. County Commissioners approved a $375,000 settlement with Swink in September 2017. Last year, the county agreed to pay Charles Wade $115,000, who was also strapped into a restraint chair when pepper-sprayed in 2016.
During 2017, inmates were placed in restraint chairs an average 6.4 times per month. In the first five months of 2018 that number had risen to 11.4 per month, according to the report.
Preserving jail records
The committee also called for establishing a process to review use of force incidents that may include a civilian review panel that would examine reports, videos and photos to provide transparency and trust with the community.
“We would require that all evidence from a use of force incident, including electronic and physical evidence, be preserved, secured and maintained appropriately so it cannot be deleted, destroyed, or tampered with,” according to the report.
An investigation by the Dayton Daily News turned up missing surveillance video showing then-Sgt. Judith Sealey pepper-spraying a bound Swink. Montgomery County claimed no video and other evidence existed of the incident.
Refused access to inmates
While the sheriff’s office and jail staff cooperated extensively for the study, including access to data and the jail facilities, the team assessing the jail was not allowed to talk with inmates.
“Regrettably, however, the Justice Committee did not have access to jail inmates for interviews, which we regard as a deficiency in this report,” the committee wrote.
Citing an ongoing class-action lawsuit alleging jail overcrowding, former Sheriff Phil Plummer, backed by the county prosecutor, last summer denied the advisory committee direct access to inmates for the study.
The committee was able to eventually interview 10 former inmates from a randomly selected pool of 270 released inmates. While the sample size was too small to provide concrete data, the committee said the anecdotal evidence gathered was consistent with other findings, including reports on the facility’s lack of cleanliness, the poor condition of plumbing and HVAC systems, overcrowding, a non-responsiveness grievance system and use of force instances.
Approximately 25,000 people are booked into the jail each year.
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