Jailhouse blues

WOODSFIELD-Signs of attempted modernization can be seen scattered throughout the 136-year-old Monroe County jail. A large tube television rests on a cart right outside the grated metal bars of the jail’s one four-person cell. Mounted on the crumbling concrete walls of the room, closed circuit cameras monitor the cell and an intercom inside connects to the sheriff’s office dispatch center.

What can not be seen in the jail are any prisoners.

Found during an October inspection by the state to be seriously lacking in standards of security, staffing and prisoner safety, the Monroe County Jail stopped housing prisoners. Since then, the county’s prisoners have been scattered throughout the state, costing the county’s general fund tens of thousands of dollars each month in housing and transportation fees.

Though it would be expensive upfront, Monroe County Sheriff Charles Black Jr. said he thinks a new jail would be in the county’s best interest.

“It would make sense to build a new structure, keep jobs in our county instead of shipping them all over,” he said.

While updates to keep the current jail operational are possible, they would be cost inefficient, Black added.

“It’s just a laundry list of problems. We’re an 1800s jail,” he said.

Among other things, an inspector with the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction found that the jail lacks a sprinkler system, secure doors separating holding cells from administrative offices, and a permanent around-the-clock staff.

When it was still housing prisoners, the jail was monitored by the deputies on duty through a camera monitoring system in the administrative side of the jail. If deputies left on a call, inmates could use an intercom in the cell to buzz dispatch, which is housed in the same building.

“The previous inspector, he was saying the monitors were sufficient,” said Black.

But during the newest inspection, the monitors were deemed insufficient, meaning the sheriff’s office would have to hire five full-time staff members-an approximate $200,000 annual cost-to monitor the jail around the clock, said the sheriff.

Add on the cost of necessary physical upgrades like adding an exterior fire escape and changes to the existing holding cell-which Black said is a suicide hazard-and the county could be looking at a million dollars in upgrades to open the jail back up for the four inmates it was housing at a time.

The latest inspection was not the start of the jail’s woes. The facility has been steadily downgraded and downsized since 2000 when the state ordered the jail closed because of multiple deficiencies, said Black. At the time, the jail had been housing 20 inmates-seven felony offenders in the holding cells downstairs, 10 to 12 misdemeanor offenders in the upstairs room now used for storage, and two holding cells for females.

An interim sheriff chose to reopen the jail around 2004, but only for a maximum of five misdemeanor offenders to be housed in the downstairs cell and only as a five-day holding facility, which needed to meet less rigorous standards than a full service jail, said Black.

The jail eventually moved to only four prisoners and continued that practice until the most recent inspection.

Because of the previous problems, this is not the first time plans for a new jail facility have been discussed, said Monroe County Commissioner Carl Davis.

“There was a study done several years ago about the possibility of a new jail, and we’re looking at those plans and we’ve been looking at sites on county-owned ground,” he said.

That being said, any talk of a new jail facility is very preliminary, added Davis.

“What we’re really looking at is the nature of what it costs to house prisoners out of the county compared to what it would cost to make payments on a new jail and then what it would cost to operate it,” he said.

The county budgeted around $200,000 for prisoner housing this year. The money comes from Monroe County’s $5.5 million general fund, said Davis.

And the number could surpass what’s budgeted. In January the county spent around $20,000 on inmate housing, he said.

That number will likely be higher for March, when the prisoner number jumped from seven to 37 following a large indictment and subsequent round of arrests.

There is also a significant cost with transporting prisoners, said Black.

The closest place that could house the women arrested in the large March sweep was in Montgomery County, which is more than a three-hour drive, said Black.

The county could look to some of its neighbors for input on the cost of building and operating a new jail. Facing similar problems with old, inadequate facilities, both Washington and Noble counties have built new jail facilities in the past 20 years.

Noble County was housing prisoners in its 1882 facility until the county residents approved a levy that saw a new jail built in 1998, recalled Charles Cowgill, who was a Noble County Commissioner at the time.

“Our old jail was really, really old, and it wasn’t up to the standards that we require. We had a court order against us to do something,” he said.

While the voters approved the levy to build the jail, they overwhelmingly voted down a levy issue that would have helped the struggling jail’s operations six years later. The site is still operational today and will likely be paid off within the next four years, said Cowgill.

Washington County opened its new jail in 2004. The $6.4 million project was half funded by grants and half funded by bonds, said Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks.

“The reason we had to built the new jail was because the old one wasn’t meeting the guidelines,” he said.

When the Washington County Courthouse opened the annex in 1967, it included a jail facility. One of the main issues with the facility was that it provided no space for inmates to exercise, said Mincks.

Until a decision is made, the Monroe County Jail will act as a temporary holding facility-the lowest classification allowed by the state. Under that classification, prisoners can be held at the jail for a maximum of six hours while they are awaiting transportation or a court appointment.

But Black hopes a move for a new jail is made sooner rather than later.

“It’s uneconomical and the problem isn’t going away. The population isn’t going to decline. It’s going to rise. With the good comes the bad, and that means more crime,” he said.