Assaults in Ohio jail double from 2017 to 2018

During renovations at Portage County Jail, the number of assaults on corrections officers and inmates has increased dramatically

By Eileen McClory
Record-Courier, Kent, Ohio

The number of Portage County Jail inmates charged with assault while being held in the jail more than doubled between 2017 and 2018, according to a Record-Courier analysis of court records and Portage County Jail records.

"My initial response to that would be because of the population increase," said Portage County Sheriff David Doak when he was told those numbers.

At that same time, the number of jail inmates was rapidly increasing, according to numbers provided by the Portage County Sheriff's Office. In January 2017, 191 people were being held on average in the jail. By December 2018, 240 people were being held in the jail on average that month.

In June, Doak said, the jail ran out of mattresses because 296 people were in the jail, which was built to hold 218 people. When the jail runs out of space in the general population, they give out mattresses and have inmates sleep on the floor outside of the cells.

Renovations are being done to bring the maximum occupancy to 352. The work is expected to cost about $20 million and come from a five-year, 0.25 percent sales tax imposed on the county in 2015 that generates $21 million.

In the meantime, while the jail is under construction, the number of assaults on corrections officers and inmates has increased dramatically.

Types of assaults

Most of the assaults coming from within the jail lead to the arrests of men, and most of those were inmates committing violence against inmates.

A total of five women were charged with assault in two years. Five incidents in 2018 involved either a corrections officer or a jail nurse.

Men still make up most of the jail population, though the female population has been rising as the drug crisis continues. Part of the reason for the jail's expansion was the increase in the number of female inmates, Doak said.

The assaults varied from misdemeanor offenses to felonies. In many of the cases, corrections officers came upon two inmates fighting, according to a review of jail records.

On Dec. 20, 2018, three men were accused of attacking a fourth inmate in the general security area of the jail. According to a report, corrections officers had a hard time getting to the situation for backup because work was being done on the electric security panels that would allow them back into the jail.

"If two or three of them (inmates) start getting into an incident, we won't get in there without backup," Doak said, for safety reasons.

Corrections officers took the four men, all of whom were injured, one by one to the on-duty nurse at the jail. The inmate that was attacked had to be taken to University Hospitals Portage Medical Center in Ravenna in a wheelchair. Medical staff wanted to give him a CAT scan, but he refused.

The other three people involved had minor injuries, such as bites and scratches, according to a report from the sheriff's office.

Two of the attackers, Billy Graham and Pete Russo, were sentenced on felony assault charges in August. Graham is serving four years on probation and Russo is serving a year in jail and must pay a $300 fine.

The majority of the assaults related to much smaller incidents, where inmates had punched each other or hit one another with lunch trays. Those people were charged with misdemeanors.

Preventing the attacks

According to the data, the number of assaults generally fluctuates with the number of inmates in the jail at any one time.

In December 2018, when the jail hit 240 inmates on average that month, the largest number of inmates in the two-year time span, the number of assaults also hit an all-time high. Seven inmates were charged with assault in December 2018 in four separate incidents.

However, in December 2017, the number of inmates was 177 on average that month, far below the jail's capacity. Three people were charged in three incidents that month, including one woman who was accused of assaulting a corrections officer.

Doak said 10 to 11 corrections officers are usually present at any one time on a shift, but that's a ratio of 10 guards to more than 200 inmates.

Still, he said the corrections officers do a great job preventing a lot of issues that could happen in the jail.

"I need to give the staff some credit, and probably a lot of credit, for what they prevent back there, things that don't get reported," Doak said. "There's a lot that goes on back there that they do prevent."

Mahoning County Sheriff Jerry Green said for most of his career, the Mahoning County Jail had a problem with too many prisoners and too many fights. Mahoning County also holds federal prisoners, he noted, and of the more than 500 people the jail can hold, 50 to 80 of them are usually federal prisoners.

Then a few years ago, a study was done to figure out how to streamline the justice center. The jail still has assaults and fights, he said, but it's not as big of an issue as it had been.

"We have our assaults and all in the jail, but saying that we see an increase, definitely not," Green said.

Even though a new wing has opened on the Portage jail, Doak said they haven't started moving people over yet. He said the move will require reclassifying inmates to get them to stay away from each other, and he does plan on making some changes in the jail so there are fewer assaults.

The overcrowding issue may still be a problem in the future, he said, if the number of people who reoffend on drugs doesn't go down.

"We may have a repeat of this if we don't get this drug stuff under control," Doak said.

Contact reporter Eileen McClory at 330-298-1128, or @Eileen_McClory.

©2019 Record-Courier, Kent, Ohio

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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