Greene County— Designs for a new jail
- Published: May 16, 2019
The second in a series of articles looking at the proposed expansion of the Greene County Jail, and the economic, social and human issues surrounding incarceration in the county.
• Read the first, third, fourth and fifth articles in this series.
To see what a new Greene County jail complex could look like, travel an hour-and-a-half east to Lancaster, the county seat of Fairfield County, a suburb of Columbus.
After decades of discussion, county officials there built a new jail in 2017, a $34.7 million, 110,000-square-foot facility that brings under one roof three jails and five sheriff’s department locations. The new facility has 384 beds arranged in “pods” of cells or dorms with separate housing for men, women, sex offenders and offenders in solitary confinement. It also features four classrooms for inmate programming such as rehab and re-entry services, which were not previously available at the old facility due to space constraints.
“It’s a modern facility that’s safer and more efficient for everyone involved,” Lieutenant Marc Churchill, Fairfield County’s former jail commander, said this week.
The Fairfield County Jail is one of the models Greene County officials are looking to follow as they consider several options for a new county jail. Local county commissioners and the county sheriff toured the facility in recent months, and came away impressed, according to Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer.
“It’s a good platform for us,” he said of Fairfield County’s new jail design.
A consulting firm hired by Greene County has so far come up with four possible design options for a new local county jail complex. All of these are larger in scope and cost than the Fairfield County Jail. But the local project could mirror elements of the Fairfield County facility, according to Fischer.
In this next article in the News’ series on plans for a new jail in Greene County, we take a closer look at what options county officials are exploring and the factors behind those options.
Expanding space, beds
A final report from HDR, the Omaha, Neb.-based architectural and engineering firm hired by Greene County to study the local criminal justice system, has yet to be released. But a previous report from January 2019 outlines four design options for county officials to consider, ranging in projected cost from $56.2 million to $71 million. A rebuilt sheriff’s office as part of the same complex would add another estimated $18.9 million to the total project cost, the report shows.
The four options, as presented in the January report, differ mainly in terms of scope — how many beds and how much square footage the facilities contain. Different building configurations and siting possibilities flow from those factors, the report indicates. All four of the new designs would add significant numbers of beds to the county jail system.
Currently, there are 146 beds in Greene County Jail, located in downtown Xenia, and 236 in the Adult Detention Center, or ADC, located about three miles away. That total of 382 beds would be increased substantially under the new plans.
Options 1 and 2 call for renovating the ADC and adding new beds in a new facility. Option 1 calls for 324 new beds, together with the existing 236 beds at the ADC, for a total of 560 beds and 133,375 new square footage. Option 2 calls for 384 new beds, plus the 236 existing beds, for a total capacity of 620 and 150,865 square feet of new space. Option 1 total construction costs are estimated at $56.2 million, while option 2 at $59.1 million.
Options 3 and 4 call for outsourcing the ADC to a rehabilitation services provider and building a single new jail with expanded bed capacity. The options differ by bed counts: option 3 calls for 424 new beds and 165,935 new square feet, while option 4, the largest and most expensive option, calls for 560 new beds and 196,075 new square feet of space. Total construction costs for option 3 are projected at $60.6 million, while option 4 construction costs could come in at $71 million.
The county would site the project on existing county land, either on the ADC site or on another site, according to county officials.
How big should a new county jail be?
Behind the new bed counts and square footage numbers is a key figure: HDR’s estimate of local jail population increases over the next 15 years.
In a previous report from November 2018, the consultants from HDR projected that Greene County’s average daily jail population would increase to 366 by 2035. In 2017, the average daily jail population was about 283, the report shows. Looked at over a 10-year time horizon, that figure has seen fluctuations but no steady increases during the period from 2008 to 2017. In 2008, for example, the average daily jail population was 269, while in 2013, it was 238. Based on the 2008 and 2017 figures only, the average daily jail population rose about 5.6 percent during that span.
By contrast, HDR’s projection assumes a 29 percent rise over 15 years.
HDR’s projection is keyed to a number of factors, the report shows. County population increases, violent crime rates, property crime rates, probation and average length of stay in jail are among these factors. In the 10-year period examined in the report, however, all of these factors saw slight annual declines on average, except for county population and violent crime rates, the latter of which increased, on average, by nearly 2 percent annually.
The county’s incarceration rate is also a factor in the firm’s projection. Greene County has a low incarceration rate relative to national figures, according to the report. The county incarceration rate is 181 individuals per 100,000 of population, while the national rate is 229. In 2017, the county incarceration rate was 169.7. Over the 10 years examined in the report, that rate dipped to as low as 141.8 but was about the same at the starting and ending years.
The HDR consultant did not respond by press time to the News’ request for more specifics on the role of these factors and how the 15-year jail population projection was calculated.
With the projected average daily jail population as a baseline, the HDR report scales up the number of jail beds from that figure. The report assumes a 420-bed minimum for the new facility designs, due to the need to accommodate daily population fluctuations and to maintain a mix of different types of beds to house different segments of the inmate population. Women and men are housed separately, for example, and accused or convicted felons require different housing from those in jail for more minor offenses, county officials have previously said.
A 2016 report by the nonprofit Crime and Justice Institute underscores the difficulty of accurately projecting jail populations. Unlike prisons, “jails face the challenge of a high volume of short stays,” the report states. The variable length of these stays and the impact of future policy changes on arrests and bookings all contribute to the difficulty of anticipating future jail populations, according to the report.
At least one Greene County official doesn’t believe that HDR’s projected average daily population is accurate.
“The consultants’ figures are based on bad information,” Sheriff Fischer said this week.
He believes that the county should plan for even greater growth in its average daily jail population. The last 10 years are not indicative of the county’s true jail population because 120 beds at the ADC were shut down for much of that time due to budget constraints, he said. That meant certain offenders were being released earlier because of lack of space.
“The ADC just came back online and is getting used more and more,” he said.
Fischer favors a new facility with a capacity of at least 500 beds. He noted that the population of women in the county jail has risen sharply, correlated with opioid addiction and related crimes.
“We have seen a drastic increase in the number of females,” he said. As all women inmates are housed in the maximum-security downtown jail, “they are taking some of the prime spots,” he added.
Separate from the HDR study, Fischer is consulting on a preliminary basis with a different architect, Wachtel and McAnally, the firm that designed the Fairfield County Jail.
But another county official, Greene County Commissioner Tom Koogler, cautioned last week that beyond a certain point, building a bigger facility just invites more incarceration.
“If we built 1,000 beds, the judges would fill it in six months,” he said.
He affirmed that the new facility is “the sheriff’s jail,” but also stressed his view that the county should follow the consultants’ advice in scoping the project. And he pointed out that the county has in recent years been working “very hard” to expand the use of probation, drug rehabilitation and other alternatives to jail time.
Area counties expanding jails
Since opening the new jail, Fairfield County has seen an expansion in its prisoner population, according to a Dec. 29, 2017, report in the Lancaster Eagle Gazette. The report cites a “tremendous increase of prisoners into the jail.”
The original downtown jail, built in 1967, had just 27 beds, though it often housed over four times that number of inmates, according to Lt. Churchill. The county previously opened two other jail facilities to increase its total bed capacity, including leasing space from a state prison located nearby.
The new jail has 384 beds for a fluctuating daily inmate population that has gone as high as 360 and stood at 289 inmates, or 75 percent of capacity, on a recent Monday. That figure included 72 female inmates. The facility tripled its housing for female inmates with the recent rebuild, Churchill said.
Fairfield County previously faced lawsuits from inmates because of conditions in the jail, including cell space, that fell short of state jail standards. The county hasn’t seen any lawsuits since the new jail became operational, according to Churchill.
Greene and Fairfield counties are far from alone in pursuing plans to build new jails. Many of Ohio’s 88 counties are expanding or rebuilding their jails, partly in response to rises in drug and drug-related crimes, according to Bob Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association.
“They’re building new and larger facilities,” he said last week.
In our area, Warren County is set to begin construction on a $57 million new jail this summer, to be funded by a five-year, 0.25 percent sales tax increase, while Fayette County voters this week passed a new tax levy to fund the construction of an approximately $20 million new facility. In Montgomery County, a new report by a citizens group recommended replacing that county’s overcrowded and understaffed jail. And in Clark County, a feasibility study of the current and future needs of the Clark County Jail is currently underway.
Further afield, in addition to the new Fairfield County Jail, Franklin County, whose county seat is Columbus, construction has begun on a $400 million-plus new facility.
If the Greene County plan goes forward, county commissioners have said that they expect to put a sales tax increase on the ballot to raise funds for the new jail.
By contrast, Fairfield County did not require a tax increase to finance its jail.
“Building a jail is not cheap,” Lt. Churchill said. “While people may not always want to support jail construction, a jail is a necessary evil.”
*The story has been corrected from its print version to reflect the accurate jail population projection horizon of 15 years, rather than 25.