SPECIAL REPORT: Sacrificing Safety?
Lucas County, Ohio (WNWO) - Funding for a new Lucas County Jail is no longer on the ballot. County Commissioners removed it following public outrage and not being able to secure a site.
They still have not picked a new location but Sheriff John Tharp is worried about sacrificing safety.
"We know that we need a new facility and we're gonna get one," said Tharp.
He's devoted decades of his life to public service. The former US Army combat medic spent 25 years with Toledo Police. Voters elected him sheriff in 2012 and then re-elected him last year.
"Even senior groups that have come through said, 'you know, sheriff, we need a new jail'", said Tharp.
The building on Spielbusch Avenue in downtown Toledo houses roughly 17,000 pre-trial detainees a year.
Reporter: "Do you worry about your officers' safety?"
Sheriff Tharp: "I think about officer safety all the time."
The men and women housed at the jail are awaiting trial and have not been convicted. But some are extremely violent.
"Any sheriff or any police chief will tell you that they will wake up in the middle of the night thinking about what they can do better, what they haven't done, what they should do, so you always worry about officer safety," said Tharp.
Which is one reason he wants a new jail. The current building went up in 1977. It's "designed" to hold 380 inmates, but a federal court order put the cap near 450 including booking. When that's reached the jail starts releasing people.
Major John Sylvester, a corrections administrator took NBC 24 on a tour. He pointed out several structural issues that make the current building vulnerable.
There are major cracks in the walls and ceilings, pipes that leak and rust, elevators break down all the time - including those used for prisoners. One elevator even stopped working during our tour. Maxi pads even hold up privacy curtains for some showers, and the roof that was put on 40 years ago has never been replaced.
"There's nobody here that we can point fingers at," said Tharp. "We're not looking to point fingers, but the fact is that the facility was not maintained the way it should've been maintained."
Down in booking officers pat down detainees and sometimes find weapons and drugs. Inmates even rip up the old tile and sometimes make shanks.
There are 253 cameras inside the jail but officers say they could use 50 more because of blind spots throughout the building.
"It's an adventure every day," said Corrections Officer Todd Anderson who works on Level 6.
For the past five years, Anderson has held the keys to maximum security. An area, he says, where doors do not open, close and lock how they should. The vents are also contaminated and the heat often goes out in the winter.
"We're a full service jail," said Anderson, "and we can't see the needs to everybody and we do our best and we try. A new facility would allow us to do that."
A new location isn't just about saving money or protecting the inmates. There are more than 300 people who come here every day to work including corrections officers, custodians, and nurses.
"The style that it was built in, in the 1970s creates problems for us," says Aaron Nolan, Director of Inmate Services. Nolan has worked at the jail for 24 years.
It's a containment style jail built specifically for prisoners and not managing their behavior.
"This is a dark decrepit building," said Nolan. "It's not conducive really to what we need in conventional standards of corrections for 2017."
He's talking about standards that help inmates when they're released; substance abuse services, mental health treatment, and access to community programs. A new supervision model would allow one officer to watch 60 inmates at once. Nolan says keeping them occupied reduces security needs, fights, and violence. New technology could also allow them to Skype with loved ones - removing the embarrassment for families who would rather not visit a jail.
"Not everybody here is going to prison for a life sentence," said Nolan. "These are people who are going to be released back into the communities from which they came."
According to LCSO's finance director, it'll cost $33,722,485 to run the current jail this year. That's $92,390 a day. County officials say a new jail would save them 15%-20%.
"Every month that we wait it's going to cost more – construction's gonna go up, prices are gonna go up., said Sheriff Tharp.
Which is why he wants to start building soon. Even though some politicians have told him asking for a new jail is political suicide. He is, after all, up for re-election in 2020.
"I'm not concerned about that," said Tharp, "it's the right thing to do. We all know that we need a new jail and the people will vote for who they think is the right person and if they don't feel that I'm the right person then they need to get rid of me."
When a site is finally chosen for the new jail it's estimated to cost $145 million. Sheriff Tharp says it would be most convenient to have it downtown, but they will go out farther if they need to.
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