Ohio ramping up jail inspections following problems

Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert and Montgomery County Sheriff Rob Streck speak after a meeting in which county commissioners approved moving forward with a jail expansion study phase. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert and Montgomery County Sheriff Rob Streck speak after a meeting in which county commissioners approved moving forward with a jail expansion study phase. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

After a string of lawsuits and inmate deaths in Dayton, Cleveland and elsewhere, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction tripled its jail inspection team and will soon start surprise visits and mandatory reporting of critical incidents such as suicides and escapes.

In June, Gov. Mike DeWine called for stepped up state oversight of 313 jails and temporary holding facilities across Ohio. “If we’re going to (inspect local jails,) we going to do it right,” he said.

Ohio DRC Bureau of Adult Detention increased its inspection staff to nine, up from three, and hired a health care specialist and a construction project manager. Total staff climbed from five to 15.

RELATED: DeWine calls for more oversight of local jails

Starting this year, DRC will conduct annual full inspections on all standards – not just a sub-set of rules, as had been the practice. The state administrative code was also changed to allow for unannounced inspections and mandatory reporting to the state of all critical incidents.

Previously, reporting of in-custody deaths or use-of-force was optional.

Between May and December, before mandate took effect, DRC was notified of 21 deaths, 16 suicides, two serious suicide attempts, 25 escapes, three fires, three sexual misconducts and 19 other incidents at jails across Ohio.

Included in those reports: a suicide Feb. 19 in Clark County Jail, a suicide Oct. 27 in Montgomery County Jail, a suicide Oct. 31 in Miami County Jail and minor fires in Butler County Jail on Aug. 30 and Sept. 3.

The new inspection and reporting requirements come in the wake of at least 15 federal lawsuits filed against Montgomery County that alleged mistreatment and overcrowding in its jail. In recent years, the county has paid out more than $13 million in legal fees and settlements related to the lawsuits.

The Justice Advisory Committee, formed in March 2017, made 90 recommendations in February 2019 for the Montgomery County Jail. The county entered into a $500,000 consulting contract for a master plan, which is expected to be completed in April.

In Cuyahoga County, seven inmates died in a four-month span in 2018. That led to an investigation by the U.S. Marshals Service, which issued a blistering report in November 2018 that called the conditions inhumane and unsafe.

A report by DRC in early 2019 found the Cuyahoga County Jail failed to comply with nearly two-thirds of 135 state standards.

RELATED: Ohio finds numerous problems at troubled county jail

The FBI is conducting a civil rights investigation of prisoner treatment at the downtown Cleveland jail. The agency and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation are also investigating allegations of public corruption regarding current and former Cuyahoga County officials, including issues surrounding the jail.

Ohio DRC also updated rules for jails, spelling out minimum space per inmate for holding cells, dormitories, day space; one shower, sink and toilet for every 12 inmates; limits on noise levels; access to reading materials, television viewing and exercise; and timely provision of health, mental and dental care services.

State law gives the DRC director authority to establish jail standards.

DeWine said problems in Cuyahoga County Jail triggered his call for stepped up oversight.

“Look, running a jail today is very different than it was 50 years ago or 25 years ago. With the massive amount of people that have a mental health problem or who have a substance abuse problem in our county jails, they are under tremendous pressure,” DeWine said. “While we have an obligation to do this right, we also need to be mindful of the pressure that these local jails are under. I think we have to start looking at this holistically and part of that is what we’re trying to do. There will be some more proposals coming out in the future having to do with our local jails.”

Information from the Associated Press is included in this report.

By the numbers

At Ohio’s 313 jails from May 2019 to December 2019:

21 deaths

16 suicides

2 serious suicide attempts

25 escapes

3 fires

3 sexual misconducts

Source: Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction