Ohio to step up inspection, oversight of county jails

Staffing of the jail inspection office will more than double to increase accountability and ensure humane conditions


Randy Ludlow
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Half of Ohio's county jails — housing thousands of pre-trial detainees not convicted of any crime — failed to achieve passing scores in initial state inspections last year.

With state oversight long an underfunded afterthought, Gov. Mike DeWine directed that staffing of the state's jail inspection office be more than doubled to increase accountability and help ensure humane conditions.

Franklin County Sheriff's Sgt. Mandy Rennie checks on an inmate in a cell in the Franklin County Corrections Center in Downtown Columbus. (Brooke LaValley/Dispatch)
Franklin County Sheriff's Sgt. Mandy Rennie checks on an inmate in a cell in the Franklin County Corrections Center in Downtown Columbus. (Brooke LaValley/Dispatch)

With only three inspectors among its staff of six, the state prison system's Bureau of Adult Detention now inspects Ohio's 313 local detention facilities only for compliance with essential standards each year, with half of all other standards checked every other year.

And between 2008 and mid-2012, the state did not conduct a single jail inspection after budget cuts left only one inspector to investigate prisoner complaints, use of force by guards and in-custody deaths, including suicide.

Expressing alarm over the troubled Cuyahoga County jail in Cleveland, DeWine said, "Their examinations haven't been as comprehensive as I believe they should be. It's time the division has the tools to effectively carry out is statutory obligations."

Through appropriating job openings in the central office and an additional $1 million annually, the state now will have 15 employees — including a nurse to check on health care — to keep a better eye on local jails, said Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

DeWine also wants lawmakers to permit unannounced jail inspections (which by law now must be scheduled) and require local jails to report inmate deaths, use of force by guards and inmate violence. Such reporting to the state now is optional. Ohio jails house about 21,000 prisoners each day, according to state figures.

Mike Brickner, senior policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which long has lobbied for improved jail conditions, called the changes a "good start" in a tweet. But he issued a caveat, writing, "We need to give DRC actual teeth to enforce laws. If you read the inspection reports, there are issues that have been ongoing for years with no movement from local jails."

The Cuyahoga County Corrections Center has served as a poster child for the need for tighter state monitoring. Amid eight inmate deaths last year, instances of guards beating prisoners and other problems, state and federal officials are conducting a civil-rights and criminal investigation of jail employees and officials. Several indictments have been handed down.

The state requires jails to meet all 53 "essential" standards and 90 percent of 110 "important" standards to be found in compliance as a safe, secure and humane facility. Sheriff's offices and other jail operators must submit plans to correct problems cited by state inspectors.

In central Ohio, all but one county jail was found in compliance with state standards following recent inspections and some follow-up fixes.

The Pickaway County Jail in Circleville was cited for failing to meet 48 of the 53 "essential" standards and 23 "important" standards. The problems largely stemmed from the failure to provide records documenting its compliance or neglecting to update policies to reflect standards. The jail also was flagged for failing to conduct a fire inspection. The sheriff's office later remedied some of the paperwork problems.

After addressing issues such as overcrowded dorms, a gnat infestation and an inner-jail communication system that did not always work last year, Franklin County's Downtown and Jackson Pike jails were declared in compliance earlier this year.

The Licking County Jail in Newark received a perfect score in last year's inspection and the Delaware County Jail in Delaware missed perfection by only one "important" standard regarding night-time lighting in prisoner cells.

The Fairfield County Jail was cited for failing to maintain a fire safety and prevention plan approved by the Lancaster Fire Department, which since has been corrected.

The overcrowded Tri-County Regional Jail in Mechanicsburg, which houses prisoners from Madison, Union and Champaign counties, was cited for failing to provide enough living space per inmate.

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©2019 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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