Jailhouse justice

Assault victims in jail are reluctant to complain, either because they fear reprisals or don’t want to snitch


Prisoners in the Lucas County jail lose many rights, even though most of them are awaiting trial and haven’t been convicted. But one right they shouldn’t lose is the right to safety.

Physical assaults are a major security problem in most county jails. Inmates in crowded quarters are stressed. Some prisoners, coming off drugs or alcohol, feel the intense discomfort of withdrawal. A few inmates seek opportunities to extort and humiliate.

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Makeshift weapons, including shanks, sharpened floor tiles, hefty plastic food trays, and clubs made from compressed paper encased in cardboard toilet paper rolls, can make jailhouse assaults even more dangerous.

With 27,000 bookings a year, the Lucas County jail, designed to hold about 380 inmates, generally holds 430 to 450 prisoners. That forces dozens of inmates to sleep on cots in day-room areas. Most jail inmates remain in the jail for an average of three months.

Making matters more difficult for authorities, most assault victims in jail are reluctant to complain, or even report an incident, either because they fear reprisals or don’t want to snitch.

In the past, inmate assaults in the county jail were mostly handled internally through a discipline board that would impose sanctions such as taking away telephone privileges or recreation time. Assaults resulted in criminal action only if a victim filed charges, which rarely occurred.

All that changed in January, after Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp took office. Mr. Tharp decided to change the policy after he watched a tape of several inmates beating another inmate who refused to cry for help.

“I saw that and said, ‘We’re not going to put up with that,’” Mr. Tharp told The Blade’s editorial page. “We just can’t look the other way.”

Using video evidence, deputies started routinely filing assault charges — nearly 150 since mid-January. Most of the charges have been misdemeanors, but a handful of jailhouse assaults have resulted in felony charges. “I have a 100 percent conviction rate,” said detective Sgt. J.A. Gorney. “If there’s video, I don’t need a victim to press charges. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t want to.”

Having the sheriff’s office, instead of the victim, initiate charges reduces the chances for retaliation. When the new policy started, jailhouse assault charges averaged one a day.

But they dropped to fewer than 10 a month by May, as word of the new policy spread inside the jail. It has deterred prisoners who don’t want to go before judges with new charges.

“It doesn’t look good for prisoners when they see the judge after they’ve caught another misdemeanor charge for assault in here,” Sergeant Gorney said.

Unfortunately, assaults continue in the jail’s many “blind spots” — in corners and behind walls — that are insulated from direct supervision. The jail’s cramped and faulty design is one reason Lucas County should move forward with building a new jail as soon as possible.

Meantime, Sheriff Tharp and his staff should be commended for changes that maintain a safer environment for everyone who stays and works in the Lucas County jail.