OTTAWA, Ohio - Strolling through the new $5.9 million Putnam County jail and sheriff's office, Sgt. Dave Roney can think of just one way to compare it to the 112-year-old lockup still in use here.
“Everyone says it's night and day, and they're right. It is,” he said. “It is the two extremes. This is the most up-to-date correctional facility in Ohio today.”
Inside the nearly completed jail, a semi-circle of two-tiered, dormitory-style cellblocks can be viewed from a central control area where everything from lights to locks is controlled by computer. The rooms are bright. The doorknobs sparkle.
Sergeant Roney, who spent 25 years with the sheriff's office before retiring, came out of retirement to work at the new 76-bed jail, which is expected to begin housing inmates in mid-February.
“I wouldn't have gone back to where it was at,” he said.
Where it was at - where it still is for a few months - is the vintage brick sheriff's residence and jail built in 1890. Vintage is putting it kindly. Rundown, dilapidated, and cramped are more accurate.
“From the day I came into office in 1987, I had serious concerns about the jail,” said Putnam County Common Pleas Judge Randall Basinger. “I toured the facility immediately upon taking office, and I had serious concerns about the adequacy and the safety features of the facility.”
While county officials had talked about building a jail for more than 20 years, Judge Basinger, as chairman of the county's corrections committee, helped lead the charge to finally get it done.
To finance the project, Putnam County secured $2.66 million from the state and used $936,000 it had set aside over the years for a new jail.
After a series of public hearings, county commissioners approved a five-year, 0.25 percent increase in the local sales tax to use for the jail.
Taxpayers did not balk.
“The voters of the county certainly understand this is not a frivolous expenditure by any view,” Judge Basinger said. “It is just an absolute necessity that we had to make this move. I think we were bearing significant risk if we did not.”
For decades, the county jail received failing marks on state inspection reports.
In 1980, a legal services agency filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court claiming conditions in the jail were cruel and unusual. The county settled the suit by improving security and fire protection and adopting new rules and regulations for the jail, but few improvements have been made since.
“It has so many problems - everything from issues of fire hazards to plumbing to electrical, some of which we've tried to deal with, but in such an antiquated facility it's almost impossible to bring it to a level where we can meet all the state's demands,” Judge Basinger said.
The new jail is in an industrial park on Ottawa's south side, about a mile from the downtown courthouse. While deputies will have to transport inmates to court, the trip will be significantly shorter and less costly than bringing them in from jails in Van Wert, Lima, and Bucyrus.
Because the old jail was only licensed for 13 male prisoners, all females and other male inmates have been housed at area jails for years. The cost to the county has been close to $300,000 a year.
Seven new corrections officers have been hired to work at the new jail, including six women.
Lt. Mike Ball, jail administrator, knows some inmates who have spent time at the old jail may not have the same appreciation he has for the shiny new lock-up.
Because of the old jail's small size, two local restaurants catered meals. For years, inmates could have visitors six days a week. Inmates controlled the cable TV, and, even when smoking was banned for jail employees, inmates were permitted to smoke.
“Some of them didn't care what their cell looked like. They liked the privileges,” he said.
Rules will be much more stringent at the new jail, right down to the gray line drawn a few feet inside each cellblock. Inmates will not be permitted to step past it for security purposes, Lieutenant Ball said.
The sheriff's staff and 911 operators and dispatchers plan to move into their offices at the facility tomorrow.
Sheriff James Beutler has asked that residents postpone making nonemergency calls to 911 until late afternoon, although the 911 system should not be affected when the transfer is made to the new communications center beginning at 7 a.m.
County commissioners have not decided what to do with the old jail and the two-story house where the sheriff's office has been located.
“We're probably at a minimum looking at using them for storage space, although we might look at them for office space for agencies we currently rent office space for,” said Carri Leathers, county projects director.