THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER
Leaky pipes and roof. A dark shower blackened with mildew. Elevators that break down. Cracked tiles in the kitchen where roaches can breed. Visiting areas with no privacy. Dozens of prisoners on cots because there’s no space.
These are a few snapshots of the Lucas County jail. As interest rates remain at record lows, replacing this inefficient and inhumane building in downtown Toledo ought to become an immediate priority for county commissioners and the taxpayers and residents they represent.
Trying to fix the current building, which opened in 1977, is neither practical nor sensible. Maintaining and running this poorly designed structure would cost taxpayers millions of dollars in repairs and added personnel costs. The cramped, outdated nine-level building precludes the efficient direct supervision that would enable corrections officers to monitor and communicate with large groups of inmates in open bays.
Designed to hold 380 inmates, the jail generally holds 430 to 450, forcing dozens of prisoners to sleep on cots in day-room areas. Growing numbers of women prisoners — who must, by law, be segregated from the men — aggravate space problems. Practically all of the jail’s prisoners are pretrial detainees who have been charged with a crime but not convicted.
A report commissioned by the county found that some similar-sized jails require 40 percent fewer staff for supervision and safety. It concludes Lucas County spends $3 million more a year because of the jail’s inefficient design.
County commissioners have named a committee to study replacing the jail. By July, they should have recommendations from the committee and its working group about the cost, size, and location of a new jail. “All three commissioners fully support building a new jail,” county board president Carol Contrada told the The Blade’s editorial board.
The study also will project future jail populations, accounting for changes in sentencing laws and re-entry policies, and recommend ways to pay for a new jail, either by long-term bonds, sales taxes, levies, or other means.
Lucas County should use this opportunity to re-evaluate its corrections policies and services. Mentally ill prisoners now make up 25 percent, or more, of the jail population. The county needs to determine not only how it can better provide mental health services in the jail, but also how it can divert more mentally ill prisoners to more-effective community-based programs.
County Sheriff John Tharp favors locating a jail near the Toledo Correctional Facility on East Central Avenue, possibly using a mothballed, decade-old building that once housed 500 prisoners.
The county could save money by contracting with the state prison for laundry, cooking, and medical services. The sheriff’s office now employs 540 people; with a new jail approved, it could start to cut staff size through attrition.
The current jail should embarrass any first-class county. County commissioners and Sheriff Tharp must answer many hard questions over the next few months, before they sign off on a plan. But whether Lucas County needs a new jail shouldn’t be one of them.