Criminally inefficient

As they consider a new jail, Lucas County officials should also review criminal justice and mental health policies


Lucas County commissioners have hired an architectural design firm to dig into questions about a new jail. Given the current outdated building, the study should focus on how to construct and pay for the jail — not on whether it is needed. Broader use of technology and the growing number of mentally ill and female prisoners are among the many needs the new jail must meet.

Trying to patch up an inefficient, inhumane facility that opened in 1977 is neither practical nor sensible. Maintaining and running this poorly designed structure would cost taxpayers millions of dollars in repairs and added personnel costs.

Cramped and antiquated, the current nine-level building — which includes a basement and sub-basement — precludes the efficient direct supervision that enables corrections officers to monitor and communicate with large groups of inmates in open bays.

Lucas County’s jail was not designed properly even for the standards and needs of 1977.

A county-commissioned report found that some similar-sized jails require 40 percent fewer staff for supervision and safety. It concluded that Lucas County spends $3 million more a year because of the jail’s inefficient design.

“We can’t do direct supervision — that’s a safety issue,” Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp told The Blade’s editorial page on Monday. Ideally, he said, the jail should house inmates on two floors in an open 1½-story building.

Designed to hold 380 inmates, the county jail generally holds 430 to 450 prisoners, forcing dozens of them to sleep on cots in dayroom areas. Growing numbers of female prisoners — who must, by law, be segregated from male inmates — aggravate space problems.

The new jail must also accommodate large numbers of inmates who need medication and treatment. Mentally ill prisoners now make up 25 percent or more of the jail population. The county needs to determine not only how it can provide better mental health services in the jail, but also how it can divert mentally ill prisoners to more effective, and less expensive, community-based programs.

Most of the jail’s prisoners are pretrial detainees who have been charged with a crime but not convicted.

The new jail should make maximum use of Skype, video, and other technology for visitation, arraignments, and hearings.

Such technology can ease the movement of prisoners into courts, increasing safety and decreasing the need for security, Sheriff Tharp said.

A new jail, which could take more than a year to build, could open by 2016. Experts say it should remain close to courts but also include courtrooms to reduce the movement of inmates.

A Blade editor who toured the current jail this year saw leaky pipes and a leaky roof, a dark shower blackened with mildew, elevators that broke down, cracked tiles in the kitchen where roaches could breed, visiting areas with no privacy, and dozens of prisoners on cots because of a lack of space.

The design firm DLR Group of Omaha will be paid as much as $75,000 to assess replacing the jail, a study that should take four months.

A local steering committee includes county commissioners, Sheriff Tharp, other elected officials, and a representative of a local mental health agency.

Commissioners and committee members ought to keep the public informed, because building a jail will likely require a levy or bond issue. It’s a chance for them to educate the community not only on building a jail, but also on responding to the changing needs of the criminal justice and mental health systems.