Lucas County’s decrepit jail typically operates at population levels nearly 20 percent above capacity. Increasingly, such crowding creates conditions that are unsafe, inhumane, and in need of immediate action.
Designed to hold 380 inmates, the jail in downtown Toledo generally holds 425 to 450, forcing dozens of prisoners to sleep on cots in dayroom areas. On occasion, the jail’s population exceeds 500 — and even 550 — prisoners, Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp told The Blade’s editorial page this week.
Spikes in population can occur randomly. Spring and early summer, as well as long holiday weekends, are especially prone to sharp increases.
Police sweeps for offenses such as domestic violence, child support delinquency, or gang-related activity can also push prisoner counts to dangerously high levels. Moreover, growing numbers of women prisoners — who must, by law, be segregated from men — aggravate space problems.
As a long-term solution, replacing Lucas County’s inadequate and inefficient jail must become a priority for county officials. They are considering several options, including a new jail on seven acres owned by the state adjacent to Toledo Correctional Institution.
Siting, financing, and building a jail take time — at least three years — but county officials should not prolong the process. Before they sign off on a plan, they must account for changes in sentencing laws and re-entry policies, and the mental health needs of prisoners. But they don’t need another study to demonstrate the need for a new jail.
The downtown jail, laced with cracked tile and leaky pipes, was poorly designed when it was built 36 years ago. The cramped, outdated nine-level building precludes the efficient direct supervision of large groups of inmates.
For those very reasons, county officials cannot wait for a new jail to alleviate the immediate dangers posed by crowding. They must find innovative, if limited, ways to manage the population now. Judges, county law enforcement administrators, and state corrections officials can do more, for example, to shorten the time newly convicted prisoners spend in jail before they are moved to a state prison.
Typically, prisoners spend two weeks in the county jail after conviction, before they transfer to a state prison. With more efficiency and better communication, the interim period should drop to three days or so.
Prisoners too would welcome a speedier transfer. County jails are short-term holding facilities, with few, if any, opportunities for programs or recreation.
The county could also expand options for certain defendants awaiting trial — who have not been convicted of anything — by using electronic monitoring with exclusion zones, and drug screening instead of jail space.
“We think we have the ability to reduce the number of people in jail, protect the public, and ensure that people get to court,” Toledo Municipal Court Judge Timothy Kuhlman told The Blade’s editorial page. “While we’re waiting for a jail to be built, there are things we can do, and are doing, to improve the situation, so that the jail is run better with fewer housed inmates.”
Granting some inmates early releases, as many counties under federal court orders for crowding have done, could also help. Practically all Lucas County prisoners are pretrial detainees who have been charged with a crime but not convicted.
When population levels at the county jail became dangerously high, certain nonviolent prisoners serving short-term sentences at the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio in Stryker could become, through judicial discretion, eligible for early release. Shaving five or six days off some 30-day sentences could free bed space at the regional jail for excess prisoners in Toledo.
Sheriff Tharp has done a good job of keeping the jail clean, safe, and humane. He’s created an honor dorm and provided incentives for good behavior. He’s done more to identify violent prisoners and keep them away from the rest of the population. Mr. Tharp has added extra officers to shifts when needed.
Even so, the jail has become an inhumane powder keg. Lucas County will solve this problem or risk having the federal government impose a solution. A new jail is the only permanent answer, but a failure to take interim action would be reckless and irresponsible.