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Metal bars, metal beds and benches, cement floors and harsh lighting make for a stark environment at the 50-year-old Greene County Jail, as seen here on a third-floor women’s block. County officials are seeking to replace the old jail with an updated and expanded facility. (Photo by Audrey Hackett)

Greene County— New jail, bigger jail?

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The third 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, second, fourth and fifth articles in this series.

Does Greene County need a new jail?

The consensus of county officials, bolstered by the conclusions of the consulting firm hired by the county, is yes. 

In its May 2019 final report, Omaha, Neb.-based architectural consulting firm HDR lays out several options and recommends that the county build a 500-bed jail and turn over the Adult Detention Center, or ADC, to a third-party provider for drug treatment and rehabilitation.

This option “offers both long-term jail capacity and a community asset in ADC that can provide needed residential behavioral health care and counseling,” the report states.

The option is the second-largest, in terms of bed size, of the five options developed by HDR. It would increase the existing bed capacity by 118 beds, or 30%.

The new jail would combine the maximum-security downtown jail, the medium-security ADC and the sheriff’s offices into a new single facility. The cost and placement of that facility have yet to be determined, although the HDR report cites total construction costs of $72.5 million. Ongoing operating costs have yet to be determined.

Sheriff’s endorsement of plan

Last Thursday, at the Greene County Commissioners’ regular meeting, Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer endorsed the report’s recommendation of a 500-bed facility, echoing his previous statements to the News that the county needed a jail of that size.

The existing jail “needs to be abandoned,” and all parts of the jail and sheriff’s operations brought under one roof, he said on Thursday.

The new jail would be a scaled-up version of the recently constructed Fairfield County Jail, which has 384 beds, a template previously reported on by the News.

The larger local facility would give the county “all kinds of flexibility for the future,” Sheriff Fischer said.

The HDR report’s recommendation assumes a time horizon of 30 years.

He cited the need to move prisoners around in the event of construction and other activities in the jail, as well as the need to provide more flexible space for different types of inmates, including male and female inmates.

In his presentation, Sheriff Fischer urged the commissioners to move forward with getting a proposed county sales tax increase to pay for the facility on the March 2020 ballot.

The jail project would be funded by a 0.25% county sales tax increase, which would bring in an estimated additional $6.9 million annually to county coffers, based on 2019 collections, according to figures provided at Thursday’s meeting.

The existing county sales tax is 1%, and the increase would bring the rate to 1.25%. The county sales tax is on top of the state sales tax of 5.75%,

Prior to the vote, Sheriff Fischer said he plans to move ahead with the architects that designed the Fairfield County Jail, Wachtel and McAnally, to clarify design parameters and cost. County Administrator Brandon Huddleson urged the sheriff to also develop an operational budget for the new facility.

A public presentation on the issue is likely to take place in the coming weeks.

All three county commissioners and several local law enforcement officials on hand for the sheriff’s presentation spoke in support of the plan.

“We all understand that we need a new jail,” Commissioner Bob Glaser said. “Anyone who goes through the jail knows we have a problem.”

Evidence of issues

On a recent tour of the existing maximum security jail in downtown Xenia, this reporter was shown plenty of evidence of the facility’s infrastructure issues, space limitations and starkly antiquated setting.

County plumbers were reaming out blocked pipes on the third-floor women’s wing, a common occurrence, according to jail administrator Major Kirk Keller, who led this reporter around the facility. In addition, the building’s HVAC system had been recently repaired after an incident during hot weather, when the air conditioning broke. The HVAC system needs to be overhauled, but that expense of more than $1 million is being deferred, given the county’s plans to build a new jail, according to Major Keller.

More evidence of the 50-year-old building’s flaws were visible in the basement. Major Keller pointed out large cracks in the basement ceiling, indicators of the structural weakness of the sally port, or garage entrance, immediately above. Arresting officers no longer drive into the structure.

“The sally port is literally collapsing,” Major Keller said.

Adding to those infrastructure issues are space limitations that have plagued the downtown jail for decades. Greene County Jail has operated under a federal consent decree due to overcrowding since 1989. The jail has 146 beds, with 137 filled during the latest state inspection in January 2019. The inspection report recommended a housing capacity of 95.

The county’s other jail, a medium-security facility called the Adult Detention Center, or ADC, located three miles away, can house another 236 inmates. But while space is available at that facility, it does not offer the main jail enough flexibility, according to Major Keller.

“It’s not set up for second- and third-degree felons,” the overspill population the ADC increasingly needs to house, he said.

Another dimension of the overcrowding at the downtown jail relates to the growing population of female inmates.

Women represent 27% to 30% of inmates in Greene County, according to the HDR study. This is nearly double the national average of 15%, according to the latest U.S. Department of Justice statistics. Both nationally and locally, the population of women in jail is growing, likely related to the rise in opioid use and drug-related crime, experts agree.

At Greene County Jail, women used to occupy only the third floor of the downtown jail, which has 46 beds. In recent years, however, 29 beds on the jail’s first floor have been converted for woman, for a total of 75 beds for women. Included in that count are 20 beds dedicated to the women’s component of the county’s in-jail drug rehabilitation program, Greene Leaf.

Stark setting

And as for the stark setting, the portions of the downtown jail toured by this reporter featured metal bars, metal beds, metal toilets lacking privacy, cement floors, harsh lighting and observation walks around the perimeter where corrections officers patrol at least once an hour, often more. The women’s Greene Leaf unit, located in the previous juvenile detention unit, is a little less stark. It features a large meeting space decorated with inspirational quotes and other items, as well as individual cells in four blocks of five.

In other parts of the jail toured by this reporter, no adornment was visible, except for a few paperback books stuck between the bars in the women’s block.

There is just one dedicated classroom space, located beyond the booking area. Excepting the Greene Leaf unit, there are no spaces within the living areas of the downtown jail for classes or meetings.

The starkest portion of the jail encompassed the isolation cells, a block of eight cells where inmates are placed for disciplinary reasons, because of mental health issues or by their own request. The cell doors feature a small window onto the hall at eye level and a small slot about knee height. Several cells seemed to be occupied, and one inmate’s face was visible peering out of the lower slot.

In addition to that block of eight cells, each floor has an additional isolation cell, for a total of 11 cells.

Another especially stark area was the mental health observation unit. The unit consists of the former “drunk tank,” a room with a bench attached to the wall and a toilet behind a partial barrier. The room has large observation windows that allow the corrections officer at the nearby station to monitor the person inside until he or she can meet with the jail’s mental health counselor, according to Major Keller.

The jail seemed to be clean and odor-free. But for a person unused to the environment, the setting was a sensory shock.

One local resident who toured the jail two years ago, Dorothée Bouquet, said she came out of the experience convinced that the county needed a new jail.

“It was abundantly clear that the buildings were inadequate for the safety and well-being of the inmates and staff,” she wrote in an email to the News this spring.

“I came out in support of a new jail, as long as it was built around rehabilitation and reinsertion [into the community],” she continued.

Local citizens serving on Greene County grand juries who tour the local county jail as part of their grand jury orientation routinely cite the need for a new jail, according to a comment from the Greene County prosecutor at Thursday’s commissioners meeting.

“You need a new jail,” appears on survey forms again and again, he said.

Separating new from bigger

But the need to upgrade and modernize a jail is separate from the issue of expanding jail capacity, according to Alexi Jones, a policy analyst at Prison Policy Initiative, a Northampton, Mass.-based think tank that focuses on prison reform.

“There are definitely jails that are in terrible shape,” she said by phone last week. “But does jail capacity have to be expanded?”

She cited current proposals to close New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex and rebuild the facility as four local jails as an example of a project that involved the construction of new jails without an expansion in total size.

But she also noted that the “general trend” among counties that are rebuilding their jails is to expand.

That is reflected in our region, where expanded jails are being built or discussed in Clark, Montgomery, Warren, Fairfield, Fayette, Franklin and other counties.

“The default assumption is that the jail just keeps growing and growing,” Jones said. “But counties don’t necessarily need a larger jail.”

Jones challenged that assumption in a May 2019 publication titled “Does our county really need a bigger jail?” In it, she  lays out what are described as “best practices for reducing jail overcrowding.” Some of these practices include reforming pre-trial detention, so that fewer people are held in jail prior to trial; creating alternatives to incarceration for people convicted of misdemeanors and low-level offenses; and ensuring that people with mental health and substance use disorders are treated rather than incarcerated.

“There are a lot of other options,” Jones said.

In her view, counties should focus on reducing jail populations, rather than building bigger jails.

“It’s the more cost effective and humane approach to take,” she said.

Reducing overcrowding

The HDR report notes that Greene County has a relatively low incarceration rate, 181 per 100,000 residents, as compared to the jail average nationally of 229 per 100,000.

Admissions have increased sharply over the past five years, the report states. In 2018, a total of 4,514 people were booked into Greene County Jail, including 54 from Yellow Springs, according to Major Keller. The average daily population was around 320 last year, he said.

The HDR report notes that the county already has a variety of policies in place to manage — that is, reduce — the size of its inmate population. These include fast-track drug cases, Fairborn’s drug court, Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT, for law enforcement officers and pre-trial screening at Fairborn Municipal Court.

The report also recommends a variety of additional tools to consider, including a sobering center, a uniform pre-trial screening tool to be used by both municipal courts and more emergency mental health beds to divert those in crisis from jail, among other strategies.

A look at existing practices in Greene County shows mixed efforts on the approaches mentioned in the Prison Policy Initiative report.

Regarding pre-trial detention, about two-thirds, or 67%, of Greene County inmates are “pre-sentence,” according to an interim report prepared for the county by HDR in November 2018. “Pre-sentence” means inmates haven’t yet been tried and are legally innocent. This percentage is about in line with national averages, the report shows.

According to Jones, reducing pre-trial detention is “the most obvious way to reduce jail populations.”

“It is the low-hanging fruit,” she said.

Such reductions can be accomplished by reforming county bail and bond systems to make sure that only those offenders who truly pose a risk to society are incarcerated before trial, she explained.

Currently, 19.5% of Greene County inmates post bond, and another 8.9% are released on their own recognizance, according to the HDR final report. Those who post bond stay in jail an average of four days, while those released on their own recognizance stay an average of 12.4 days. The HDR report recommends working to reduce the latter figure.

“The length of stay for these individuals could be reduced if a good pre-trial screening tool were used in both municipal courts,” the report states.

Regarding misdemeanors and low-level offenses, Greene County’s jail population is nearly the inverse of jail averages nationally. About 67% of inmates in Greene County are charged with misdemeanors and 30% with felonies, according to the November 2018 interim HDR report. Nationally, 25% of county jail inmates are charged with misdemeanors, 75% with felonies.

While the HDR report notes that the low felon count indicates an efficient criminal justice system, the large numbers of misdemeanor charges offer opportunities for decreasing the jail population, according to Jones.

Reducing the number of jailable offenses, expanding probation and connecting people with diversion programs and other alternatives to incarceration are some of the strategies her report highlights.

“It takes coordination of police, prosecutors, judges, community-based organizations and more,” she said of the multi-pronged approach.

Finally, regarding keeping people with mental health and substance use disorders out of jail, anecdotal evidence suggests that the local jail, in common with jails around the country, houses high numbers of people with both issues.

Nationally, 68% of the jail population have a substance use disorder, while 15% of men and 31% of women in jails have a serious mental illness, according to figures cited by the Prison Policy Initiative report.

“Jails have become de facto treatment centers,” Jones said. “They’re not good places for that.”

According to Sheriff Fischer in an email this week, Greene County’s new jail proposal would expand options for treatment in lieu of jail by turning the existing ADC into a residential treatment center.

“The ADC could be turned over to a third party for rehabilitation or anything a creative mind could come up with to help people. There are some programs in the Miami Valley area which courts currently send people to in lieu of being sentenced to jail,” he wrote.

The News will take a closer look at the issues of substance use and mental health in two upcoming articles in the “Inside Out” series.

If you build it …?

For Prison Policy Initiative’s Jones, building a bigger jail means that more people will be incarcerated.

“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that if you build a new, larger jail, it will fill up,” she said.

Police and the courts need to view jail as a “limited resource,” she added.

That is arguably the case in Greene County now, where Greene County Jail releases people based on the federal consent decree, and the county currently has at least 1,300 “failure to appear warrants” waiting to be served, according to Sheriff Fischer at last Thursday’s meeting.

He stressed at the meeting that an expanded jail is needed primarily to allow the county to better classify and separate different categories of inmates, as well as provide more classroom space and other amenities.

“We’re not building it to be full,” he said.

The HDR report sounds its own note of caution about jail expansion.

“Of concern is, if the County builds a new jail, will stakeholders be less vigilant in managing the jail population. This has been seen in other counties after jails with larger capacity are built,” the report states.

It continues, “Generally, their ADP [average daily population] increases with more beds available. The question is, will this happen in Greene County?”

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 15, 2019, issue of the News. Next week’s story will look at mental health and incarceration.

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