Lucas County’s 36-year-old jail in downtown Toledo is a mess: leaky pipes and roof, elevators that break down, cracked tiles in the kitchen where roaches can breed, visiting areas without privacy, a shower without lights and blackened with mildew, and dozens of prisoners on cots because there’s no space.
It’s inefficient, inhumane — and sometimes nasty, despite spirited efforts by new Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp to clean the place up.
That’s not just me talking. It’s also the general opinion of Sheriff Tharp and Lucas County Commissioner Carol Contrada. A new county-commissioned report, by Pennslvania-based consultant Rod Miller, an expert on jail and prison buildings, concluded that poor design now costs millions of dollars a year for added supervision and security staff. With 27,000 bookings a year, the jail, designed to hold about 380 inmates, generally holds 430 to 450, forcing dozens of inmates to sleep on cots in day-room areas.
Trying to fix this nine-level dinosaur, with its cramped and faulty design, would probably be a waste of money.
“It’s an obsolete facility, overcrowded and difficult to monitor,’’ Ms. Contrada told me. All three Lucas County commissioners support a study to look at building a new jail.
I toured the jail on Tuesday with Ms. Contrada, Sheriff Tharp, Lt. David Friddell, and Sgt. Richard Grove. I’ve visited more than 75 prisons and jails over the past two decades, and this building is perhaps the worst I’ve seen.
Pipes break almost daily, officers told me. An elevator breaks down about once a month, and the added traffic and weight diverted to other elevators often causes them to break down as well.
In the sub-basement, I saw shredded drywall outside the elevator. Occasional water-main breaks pour up to two or three inches of water and sewage on the floor.
Inmates get about an hour of recreation a day. A month ago, a rusty pipe burst on the ceiling of the gymnasium, also in the sub-basement, spewing discarded food and other kitchen waste on the gym floor.
Last summer, the jail lacked running water, including flushing toilets, for almost a week, forcing officers to carry water into the building.
Local health inspectors have complained about the kitchen’s cracked tiles, where food and vermin can lodge, including roach eggs. I saw more cracked floor tile around a medical holding cell. If the tiles are pulled up, they can easily be fashioned into a shank.
Staff cuts are another problem. Sgt. Grove showed me a sober-living unit that provided substance abuse programs. Because of shortsighted cuts, it’s idle.
On the sixth level, water leaks cause concrete chips to fall from the walls — a few nearly the size of softballs. Wrapped in a sock, chunks that big can also make formidable weapons. When it rains, staff and inmates lay towels along the floor under the pipes to absorb the leaks. Prisoners had stuffed paper in the rusty ceiling vents to keep cold air out. “It’s freezing up here,’’ one sixth-level prisoner said.
Parts of the jail’s west side, where ice forms on the walls, are closed in winter.
The video visitation area, with eight screens, looks fine. But it’s near the entrance, giving family members and prisoner zero privacy.
The jail contains two tunnels: one leading to Lucas County Common Pleas Court and another to Toledo Municipal Court. It’s worth noting that practically all of the more than 500 prisoners here are awaiting trial, or testimony. They have been arrested and charged, but not convicted. Legally, they are no more guilty than you or I. Most inmates stay for less than 15 days, and many leave within 72 hours.
County commissioners are looking at alternatives, including constructing a jail in a mothballed low-security building at Toledo Correctional Facility on East Central Avenue. The building, about a decade old, formerly housed 500 prisoners.
For now, Sheriff Tharp favors that option. There’s ample parking and maybe an opportunity to contract with the state prison for food, laundry, and medical services. It’s also the quickest option.
Any plans to rebuild or move the county jail also must consider how they will affect efforts to redevelop the Civic Center Mall.
Earlier this year, county commissioners appointed a new jail feasibility executive committee — including the sheriff and representatives of local police, courts, municipalities, and mental health advocates — to assess whether the county had the political support and financial means to replace the jail.
The executive committee appointed a working group, made up of elected officials, criminal justice experts, and citizens. They are studying building costs and capacity needs, as well as projecting local jail populations over the next 25 years.
Those population estimates “will drive the size of the building and location options,’’ said Matthew Heyrman, the county’s director of emergency management.
Opening in 1977, the Lucas County jail was never really designed to hold women, who must by law be separated from the men. But today, the jail holds more than 60 women, and it frequently runs out of space for them. I saw one woman sleeping on a cot in a holding area.
Walking through the jail, I was impressed with the way officers communicated with inmates. Sheriff Tharp wants his nearly 400 corrections officers to interact even more with prisoners, not only to help them make better choices but also to increase security and safety. A cramped, seven-story building, with a lack of open space, makes that more more difficult. “We’re trying to solve problems before they start,’’ he said.
A new jail would, through attrition, require fewer employees, Sheriff Tharp said.
To alleviate crowding, a federal court order in the 1970s forced Lucas County to build the current $12 million jail. Still, the poorly designed building didn’t fix most of the problems; it made some of them even worse.
Building a jail, as Ms. Contrada told me, isn’t as glamorous as putting up a convention center or art museum. But it’s work the community needs to do.
Now it’s time to do it again — and this time do it right.
Jeff Gerritt is The Blade’s deputy editorial page editor.
Contact him at: 419-724-6467, email@example.com, or on Twitter @jeffgerritt