There’s no turning away guests when they show up at the front counter, even if there doesn’t seem to be any place to keep them.
On Monday morning, the booking area at the Lucas County jail, built to “comfortably” hold 45 people, was stuffed with 92 inmates.
The high occupancy rate is unusual for January, but some of the extra bodies could have been there because of the long weekend when courts were closed for the holiday, said sheriff’s Lt. Jim Williams, who oversees booking.
PHOTO GALLERY: Click here to view photos of the Lucas County jail.
On Thursday, still more than 80 inmates were in the first-floor, eight-hour holding area that has become a temporary housing unit for the overflow.
Last year, more than 21,900 people were booked into the county jail — down from the average of about 25,000, Lieutenant Williams said.
Even with fewer prisoners coming in, overcrowding remains a constant problem in the 36-year-old downtown jail. The lockup’s occupancy was for 346 beds, but Sheriff John Tharp said that the daily average is around 425 inmates, although that figure can vary, he said.
Seeing visitors in the intake area, inmates in adjoining cells pressed their faces to the doors and windows and shouted about the conditions.
“We been down here five days,” yelled one man. “No toothbrushes, no showers.”
Toothbrushes are given to inmates once they leave booking and are moved into the jail, Lieutenant Williams said.
That’s done, he said, to cut down on waste because some of those arrested are there only a few hours before they are released.
Inmates are allowed a shower after they’ve been held for 24 hours; they are then added to a list and are asked if they’d like to wash, Sheriff Tharp said.
Because of the list and potential backlog, it could take 36 hours for an inmate to get his first shower.
Holding cells are stuffed beyond the recommended capacity and other rooms in the facility have been converted into holding cells just to accommodate demand.
More bodies being held over in booking creates other problems: safety concerns for inmates and corrections officers, and adding extra officers to a shift, which means stretching a tight budget, Lieutenant Williams said.
“We need a new jail,” Sheriff Tharp said. “We’re doing the best we can with what we have.”
Cramped quarters can make anyone irritable, Sheriff Tharp said, so the sardine-like conditions aren’t helping.
There have been some fights among inmates, especially for items such as blankets.
Each inmate in booking is given three, and occasionally someone will want another and take it from a cellmate.
Lack of space complicates “keep separate” orders, which means rival gang members with scores to settle or individuals who discriminate against other races could end up in the same cell.
To accommodate more prisoners, at least one more corrections officer is added to the minimum staffing levels, driving up costs.
A 26-person committee made up of judges, administrators, elected officials, and residents is helping decide what should happen to the Spielbusch Avenue pretrial corrections center.
The increasing costs to operate the facility, including repairs and maintenance, and the inability to house rehabilitation programs are among the issues being studied.
The county commissioners hired DLR Group to guide the committee in a feasibility study of a new jail.
The architectural firm from Omaha, which has designed detention facilities and prisons throughout the United States, began working on the study several weeks ago.
Meghan Vahey Casiere, chief of planning and development for the company, said the feasibility study will be a data-driven, comprehensive analysis that will determine the county’s future detention needs, including the booking cells.
She said data gathered by DLR will project an appropriate jail population program, beds, and dimensions of a facility.
“The feasibility study really has to be done, and you have to do it in an orderly fashion,” she said. “We are not dealing with anecdotes. We need to deal with hard data. That is why we are utilizing this process.”
The study is expected to be complete in the spring.
Since 1970, the jail has been under a federal court order to alleviate overcrowding.
The order was issued then after a lawsuit stated the conditions at the former county jail (the current facility was built in 1977) were inhumane.
Overcrowding has been a problem for decades, officials said.
As of about noon Friday, 60 people were in booking.
Several hundred additional county inmates were being held at the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio, where the sheriff’s office rents space.
On Jan. 17, U.S. District Court Judge James Carr, who was recently appointed to oversee the “special master” in charge of making sure the jail follows the federal court order, went on a tour of the jail.
The tour was not, he said, inspired by any upcoming federal court orders, but so he could familiarize himself with the layout and operations.
“If called upon to do so, I expect to be engaged in addressing any problems as they come to my attention,” Judge Carr said. “I’m hopeful that those officials responsible for acknowledging and solving those problems will be able to do so without formal federal court involvement.”
Lieutenant Williams said the problems in booking don’t stop with overcrowding.
“We’ve not just run out of room for bodies, we’ve run out of space for stuff,” he said.
Last year, three floods in booking ruined reams of printer paper, which had to be replaced, costing thousands of dollars, the lieutenant said.
In an ironic twist, the paper is now kept in a broken shower.
“We have to get creative with where and how we store stuff,” the lieutenant said.
Floods in the evidence room have not compromised any investigations, Sheriff Tharp said.
Flooding continues to be an issue for the corrections center, especially with the record snowfall this winter.
Every time there’s new snowfall, it has to be moved away from the foundation of the building so it doesn’t seep into the walls, Sheriff Tharp said.
In the property room, shelves sag under the weight of hundreds of plastic gray boxes that hold shoes and clothes belonging to people who have been arrested.
Although not all 666 bins have been used, it’s a question where any more could go, said Deputy Sheriff Frank Lizcano, who is in charge of the “organized chaos” in the property room.
“The new facility needs to be a major facility,” said Sheriff Tharp, who is confident that the committee studying the jail will conclude that the current accommodations are unacceptable.