Rising female inmate population crowds jails

Faced with a steadily rising number of female inmates, Ohio regional and county jails have found themselves playing a game of musical chairs when it comes to housing women.

“It’s a daily battle trying to (fit) more females in here,” said Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail Warden Jeremy Tolson.

Though the Nelsonville jail only has 32 female beds, the jail was housing 33 women Wednesday afternoon, a number that is in constant flux, he said.

Typically an extra inmate can be kept in a holding cell while it can be determined if someone will be released soon enough to make room for her. However, jails often resort to housing women prisoners in neighboring jails, said Tolson, who has needed to house two females at the Washington County Jail within the last two weeks.

However, contracting with another jail is almost always more costly and less convenient than housing prisoners close to home.

Member counties -Athens, Hocking, Morgan, Perry and Vinton – pay $53 a day to house prisoners in the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail, said Tolson.

To house out of county inmates, the Washington County Jail charges $60 a day, said Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks.

Washington County’s unique set-up of multiple dormitories of varying size gives the jail the unique advantage of being able to change how it houses males and females.

“Our women’s block is not cast in stone as some women’s blocks are,” said Mincks.

Currently the jail has 24 beds designated for females, said Lt. Brad Thorpe. It is the highest capacity any neighboring Ohio county jail has reserved for women, and it puts Washington County in a position to be able to house inmates from other counties.

Last year, the jail made $250,000 housing both male and female inmates from other counties, said Mincks. That money goes into the Washington County general fund, he said.

Currently, two of the 15 female inmates at the Washington County Jail are from other Ohio counties, said Lt. Ben Arnold, a supervisor at the jail.

“We probably get calls two to three times a week from other jails wanting us to house female inmates,” he said.

And even that facility is not immune to overcrowding. For approximately the past year, the site has stayed consistently near capacity for female offenders, said Thorpe.

The 15 current female prisoners are a poor indication of an average, said Arnold, because there is typically a lull in jail populations in winter.

“When we moved into this jail in 2004, we averaged around seven to 10 females at a time and now we average between 20 to 25,” he said.

Part of the problem regionally and statewide, said Tolson, is that many officials did not foresee a sharp increase in the female population when they were built. When the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail was built in 1998, it only contained 24 beds, he said.

“I think when they built this jail female populations were low. Female populations never really took off until three or four years ago, but they are definitely soaring now,” he said.

In fact female inmate populations used to be so low that two neighboring county jails -Noble and Monroe -do not house women at all.

“At the time we built the jail in 1998, females were few and far between in here. They didn’t see a need for a separate female room,” said Lt. Cherish Ditch, Noble County Jail administrator.

Both Noble and Monroe counties contract with the Belmont County Jail to house their female inmates. Currently, each county has one female being housed there.

Part of the overcrowding problem, said Thorpe, is that recent changes in Ohio law mean more fourth- and fifth-degree felony offenders are serving their sentence in a county jail.

But another piece of the puzzle could simply be that females are committing more crimes, said Mincks.

“I think the problem has been that more women are becoming involved in crimes of drugs and they are being charged with it,” he said.

Female inmate numbers have soared so much that the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail added eight female beds a few years ago. But capacity has already caught up to them again and the female population is not going to decrease anytime soon, Tolson said.

“Eventually I think it’s going to become an issue where we won’t be able to play the musical chair game anymore,” he said.

Jails have some different solutions for the overcrowding.

In the event of overflow, the Washington County Jail has extra beds that they can place on the floor if it comes to that, said Thorpe.

“You have to find ways to adapt. For us that’s the extra beds,” he said.

In some dire cases, Tolson has talked to judges about releasing offenders that have served more than 90 percent of their sentence, he said.

He has also had conversations about building a new addition, but cost is a big hurdle to overcome, said Tolson.