Jail overcrowding has become a significant problem at the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail, and for the five counties it serves, including Athens County.
Athens County’s law enforcement and county leaders recognize that it’s a problem, as does SEORJ Warden Joshua VanBibber.
“Over the last six to eight months, we have been full constantly,” VanBibber lamented in a recent interview.
The jail has a maximum capacity of 220 people in the general population areas, along with 14 “special beds” (medical, suicide watch or solitary confinement), and 20 holding cells. The average daily inmate number in 2018, according to state Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (DRC) records, was 223, compared with a yearly daily inmate average of 157.55 in 2012.
Overcrowding creates “tension,” VanBibber noted. “There are more fights and (EMS) transports and everything basically becomes volatile in a block when you’re overcrowded,” he said.
So, what happens when the jail is full and somebody is arrested?
According to interviews with Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn, county Sheriff Rodney Smith and county Common Pleas Judge George McCarthy, the first consideration is, how dangerous is this person? If the alleged offender presents a danger to the community or to themselves, but the jail is full, the arresting police agency will try to find space at another jail – in Washington or Noble county, for example.
“That is problematic as far as manpower goes,” Sheriff Smith said. “If there’s absolutely no jail space, we have to make arrangements to house them somewhere else, which can cause us to drive an hour to wherever we can find some other jail space.”
That typically means taking a sheriff’s deputy off of road patrol, Smith said, or paying another deputy overtime, to drive at least an hour or more to the nearest facilities.
If that’s not a possibility, but the jail is still full, sometimes a lower-level offender who is incarcerated at the jail will removed from the jail in order to make space for a higher-level offender, McCarthy and Blackburn said in separate interviews. However, that requires action on the part of one of the two Athens County Common Pleas judges (in concert with the Prosecutor’s office and the Public Defender’s office), and that can be impossible to do if it’s outside the court’s normal business hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday.
McCarthy said that the jail’s limited bed space is an almost constant consideration for him when considering bond for people.
Meanwhile, if people have been arrested on a crime but aren’t considered to be a danger to the public or to themselves, and the jail is full, those alleged offenders are simply released and told to appear in court at a certain time.
Blackburn added that there’s little continuity in the situation outlined above when there’s no jail space to incarcerate alleged offenders.
“We have an enormous backlog of arrest warrants, and there’s not really a lot of recordkeeping on how many times somebody has had contact with law enforcement if there’s not a bed for them,” Blackburn said.
Outside of the solutions outlined above, the only other thing that county officials mentioned as a possibility to reduce the number of people in the regional jail is to keep people on house arrest, using ankle monitors.
In total, SEORJ booked 5,045 adults in 2017, compared to 4,458 adults in 2016 and 4,397 adults in 2015, according to self-reported SEORJ statistics provided by a DRC spokesperson. For a point of reference, on the main day of inspection in 2012, SEORJ had 29 adult women incarcerated, compared with 104 adult men. In 2018 during that DRC inspection day, 43 adult women and 174 adult men were incarcerated.
ANOTHER BIG PROBLEM at the Regional Jail is a lack of beds for women. Currently, SEORJ only has 40 beds for women inside of two dormitories, despite state standards for the size of those dormitories suggesting that there’s only enough room for 24 beds, VanBibber said.
“Basically, nobody sleeps on the floor, (and) we do provide them with everything they need, but it is overcrowded,” VanBibber explained. “To help alleviate that situation, the (Regional Jail) board last year decided to do a building addition to remedy the situation to add more female beds to the facility.”
That plan, while still being considered, is stuck in a state of limbo with announced plans to repurpose the former Hocking Unit of the Southeastern Correctional Complex, which was shuttered early last year, taking with it 110 local jobs and 430 inmates.
Rick Hodges, executive in residence at Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences & Professions, said in an interview earlier this month that the plans to repurpose that Nelsonville area prison facility, called the Appalachian Recovery Project (ARP), are under way. Hodges is director of ARP. That facility will have three floors, with 105 beds on each floor, all of them meant for female offenders. The first floor will be a community-based correctional facility that likely will be operated by STAR Community Justice Center of Franklin Furnace (which currently operates the former SEPTA Center in Nelsonville, now called STAR Community Justice Center – Athens County campus); the second floor will be a “mixed-culture” jail with community-based correctional facility elements; and the third floor will be a jail for female misdemeanants and felons awaiting trial.
We’ll have more on the plans for that facility in the next edition of The Athens NEWS.
While the planned ARP facility will help with problems relating to female beds in the area, it still doesn’t do anything to solve the main problems relating to overcrowding at SEORJ.
ATHENS COUNTY COMMISSIONER Charlie Adkins, who is Athens County’s county commissioner representative on the board that oversees SEORJ, said that overcrowding isn’t a problem that’s unique to Athens County, or even Ohio in general.
But he noted that the crisis of opioid and methamphetamine addiction in the county is exacerbating those problems, leading to more people committing drug-related crimes and being incarcerated, including more women.
He added that several mandates at the state level, meant to reduce the number of people incarcerated in prisons, have led to adverse impacts at the county and regional jail level.
And he added that he thinks poverty in the area has a direct correlation to more drug addiction and more crime.
“I think jobs, good-paying jobs (are a potential solution),” Adkins said. “And we’re not going to get some Amazon or big factory here because of (issues with) infrastructure.”
Blackburn added that drug addiction and crime are a “cyclical problem,” and said that his office’s drug-addiction recovery and treatment program is designed to attack the root cause of most crimes in the area – addiction.
His office also has tried to get a new education program for area K-12 schools off the ground called “Preventure.” It’s essentially a personality-targeted intervention program, meant to identify young people at the highest risk of addictive behaviors, and providing them with effective ways to combat that risk of being addicted.
So far, only Trimble Local School District has implemented the programming for its sixth- and seventh-grade classes, Blackburn said, with Nelsonville-York School District waiting to see how the program goes at Trimble.
JAZZ ARMSTRONG, an Athens resident, spent six months at SEORJ while awaiting trial on several arson charges in 2017, eventually pleading guilty to those charges.
While at SEORJ Armstrong (who uses they/them pronouns) said that they spent most of their time in solitary confinement or in the medical unit. Despite not spending time in the general population confinement area, Armstrong said that the 12 cells in the solitary confinement area were “constantly filled,” with inmates being switched out.
Armstrong noted that in part because of the overcrowding and understaffing, conditions were not great in the jail.
“The cells were supposed to be cleaned on a regular basis but the guards didn’t really oversee any of that work… so for months and months the cells weren’t getting cleaned at all,” Armstrong recalled. “(Also), the showers hardly ever worked; they were either freezing cold or scalding hot, and sometimes there was no water pressure whatsoever.”
Plus, that shower facility was shared between the 12 other inmates in the solitary confinement block.
Meanwhile, Armstrong said that the facility’s ability to provide medical treatment was “really poor,” noting that there’s essentially only one medical professional for the entire jail in addition to several nurses. Due to jail policies (and likely state and federal regulations), the nature of medication made available to inmates is restricted.
“For my entire six months (the jail) switched (my) medications almost once a month,” Armstrong said. “That’s torturous if you have ever had any experience with anti-depressants and anti-psychotics; switching that often is not good, it’s not healthy for anyone.”