No room for the inmates

Erie County Jail needs more beds, but where's money to make them? PERKINS TWP. Erie County Sheriff Terry Lyons says he
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010

Erie County Jail needs more beds, but where's money to make them?

PERKINS TWP.

Erie County Sheriff Terry Lyons says he got a phone call recently from a friend who wanted a favor.

The friend was taking time off work to serve a jail sentence. Could the sheriff make sure his friend could squeeze in and serve his time?

"I just said, 'You'll have to show up like everybody else,'" Lyons said. "They might ask you if you don't mind sleeping on the floor."

It's a sign of the times, said the sheriff, who said his biggest worry is that he constantly has to try to cram too many people into his jail.

Lyons said he doesn't like having to put mattresses on the floor when space in the bunks runs out. He dislikes having to mix convicted criminals with inmates awaiting trial.

He's unhappy he's had to free 632 inmates since the beginning of the year. He's not proud of his waiting list of 311 convicted criminals waiting to serve time in the jail. Some were turned away the first, second or third time they tried to serve their sentences.

Last week, the sheriff received a report about the jail's annual state inspection. The jail flunked on four of 62 different standards: Not enough sleeping space, not enough day room space, lack of seating that forces some prisoners to eat meals sitting on the floor, and lack of a much-needed new coat of paint.

The paint job can be taken care of, but there's no easy fix for the overcrowding problem, said Lyons, who provided a tour of the jail Thursday. On Thursday afternoon, the jail, which has an official capacity of 106, held 107.

The female area of the jail had 19 women, three over the limit.

"It's Thursday. We haven't gotten to the weekend yet," Lyons said.

During a weekend in the busy summer season, "it's not uncommon for us to book in 60 people," he explained.

The sheriff asked for $500,000 in 2007 to buy space in other county jails for Erie County inmates. The Erie County commissioners agreed several months ago to provide $100,000, but said the sheriff would have to wait until they could meet with Erie County's judges. Last week, commissioners said they'll put the $100,000 on the agenda Thursday for action.

Another $1 million

Lyons has asked for a $1 million increase in his jail budget for 2008, including $500,000 for housing inmates outside the county.

He's also seeking $45,000 to seek alternatives to using jail cells.

Any alternative sentencing plan would require cooperation from other county officials, Lyons said.

"It would have to be bought into by prosecutors and judges, and also the commissioners," he said.

Ottawa County Sheriff Bob Bratton said his jail will take up to 10 Erie County prisoners a day at a price of $42.50 a day.

"I'm offering a (heck) of a bargain," Bratton said.

The county's jail, 2800 Columbus Ave., Perkins Twp., opened in 1990 with 88 beds, Lyons told commissioners Thursday. Another 18 beds were added later to boost the capacity to 106.

Commissioner Bill Monaghan asked what the jail's census was when it opened and was told it was 80 in 1991.

That suggests a lack of planning, Monaghan said. Businessmen know they have to plan for growth in the future, he said.

Lyons said capacity was believed to be adequate at the time. Since 1990, indictments in Erie County have doubled, state sentencing guidelines have imposed longer sentences, and Ohio's prisons have dealt with their own overcrowding problems by forcing county jails to house more convicted felons, Lyons said.

County sheriffs believe the state plans "to dump ever more inmates into the local community," Lyons said.

"They're running out of money, so they want to dump it on us," Commissioner Nancy McKeen said. "Where are we going to get the money?"

The Ohio General Assembly did not provide any money for jail construction when it passed its latest capital improvements budget in 2006.

The situation is an unfunded mandate, as the state forces counties to take state prisoners, Lyons said.

The county tried to get the money last year, when it put a proposed quarter-cent sales tax on the ballot to expand the jail, keep the drug task force alive and provide better security at the courthouse. Voters rejected the measure.

"I think what Sheriff Lyons is up against is that people are not so much against law enforcement, they are tired of being taxed," Bratton said.

Ottawa Co. planned ahead

Ottawa County, which had a population of 40,985 in the 2000 census, has 96 jail spaces. Erie County has 106 spaces to serve a population of 79,551, not including the influx of summer tourists and workers.

Ottawa County actually has two jails, a 48-bed full service jail and a 48-bed minimum security misdemeanor jail.

John Crosser, who was Ottawa County Sheriff until 1992, set up the minimum security jail.

"I think he was looking ahead at that point," Bratton said.

Asked if Erie County should look at a similar jail, Bratton said, "I can't say for sure. It certainly has been beneficial for us."

Erie County also could consider getting together with other counties to open a regional jail, Bratton said.

That's an interesting idea, but it would still require Erie County to contribute its share of construction money, Lyons said.

Bratton said he devotes 70 percent of his $4.2 million operating budget to his jail. He said he has 14 road deputies and 28 who work in the jail.

"Every sheriff has got problems," he said.

Lyons said he does not have detailed plans for a jail expansion -- hiring an architect would cost money -- but said adding 100 beds would cost Erie County about $10 million.

In the meantime, until a solution is found, Lyons continues to free inmates before they've completed their sentences.

The jail's early release policy gives priority to nonviolent offenders and inmates being held only because they haven't paid their fines. Jail administrators spend much of their time calling judges and asking for permission to free inmates early, Lyons said.

Lyons said he worries every night about releasing so many inmates early. Someday, one of those inmates might attack somebody or get behind the wheel drunk and cause a serious accident.

"Something is going to happen," he said. "We're going to release the wrong inmate."

Tom Jackson 7/13/07 PULLOUT

County Official capacity Population Friday morning County's 2000 census population

Erie 106 112 79,551

Ottawa 96 79 40,985

Huron 136 118 59,487

Sandusky 88 77 61,792

Seneca 174* 225 58,683

* Seneca County has added space and has applied to raise its official capacity to 212