Jailers rebut inmates' gripes about conditions
Upgrades include kitchen renovations and more security cameras.
By PATRICIA MEADE
and BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITERS
YOUNGSTOWN -- Waiting to get booked into or released from the Mahoning County jail isn't much different than waiting for a table at a restaurant, the warden says.
It depends how many are ahead of you.
"Nothing in the standards says how much time it takes," Alki Santamas, jail administrator, said of the booking process. "It depends on the number of people coming in."
The same goes for those being released from the jail, he said.
Sitting down to talk
Santamas and Sheriff Randall A. Wellington sat down with The Vindicator to discuss inmate complaint letters the newspaper receives nearly every week. The letters contain gripes that range from hygiene concerns to crowded conditions.
One inmate housed in F pod closed his letter with this: "We're almost certain that the terrorists being held in the U.S. Naval base in Cuba are afforded hot running water and plenty of toilet paper. How come we're not?"
The inmate also said the booking process can take up to 12 hours, during which time inmates are held in crowded cells.
Wellington and Santamas, citing a pending federal lawsuit over jail conditions, declined to allow reporters to inspect F and G pods, where new inmates wait until they're classified (sorted by charge or sentence). The sheriff and warden said they would need to consult with their lawyers before permitting access to the pods.
Youngstown attorney Don L. Hanni Jr. recently filed a motion in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court that seeks to have a judge compel the sheriff to explain why it took roughly six hours to release an inmate.
Hanni said his client was given a personal recognizance bond at 10 a.m. and wasn't released from the jail until 4 p.m.
"This is a general complaint. It's a real problem, going back six to eight months," Hanni said. "The order says release 'forthwith' and realistically, at tops, that would be an hour or if stacked up, two hours."
Wellington suggested that the booking/release process may take longer now because the jail is consistently housing more inmates than before and operating with fewer personnel.
The jail, which typically held around 500 inmates a year or so ago, now generally has an inmate population that surpasses 700.
Santamas said it takes roughly 45 minutes to book an inmate. The procedure includes asking a myriad of questions, getting fingerprints and taking a mug shot.
He said bookings and releases come in waves -- 18 at once coming in from drug court to be booked, for example.
"You have 18 people waiting to be booked, at 45 minutes a pop, you can figure out how long that's going to take. Yes, sometimes they have to wait," Santamas said.
It's not unusual to have 25 inmates stacked up for release, which requires verifying all the necessary paperwork and returning inmates' personal property and clothes, he said.
The warden said one or two deputies are assigned to book inmates and one is assigned to handle releases.
"It takes time," Santamas said. "It's no different than any other jail. There is a process that must be accomplished."
Santamas scoffed at the idea that inmates are not given sufficient amounts of toilet paper. He said each of them receives two rolls of toilet paper every week and more is available if needed. He said there's no problem with the water.
Richard Malagisi, county facilities manager, said there is no problem with hot water at the jail.
One letter writer complained that he hadn't had a clean jail uniform, sheets or towels for nearly three weeks.
Santamas said inmates, without exception, are offered clean sheets, towels and two uniforms each week from the in-house laundry. The warden said some inmates, if issued a new jail uniform, don't want to exchange it for a clean used one and often sneak their "new" uniform into the washers provided in the pods for underwear.
The sheriff and warden, when confronted with the complaints, said it was the first they were hearing about them. They said complaint forms are available in the jail's housing units.
"I believe we do an outstanding job," Santamas said. "We're making improvements as well."
Many of the facilities-related complaints outlined in the inmates' letters also are mentioned in a class-action lawsuit inmates filed against the county in federal court last year. The suit remains pending.
"We get letters almost every day from people complaining about different things down there," said Atty. Robert Armbruster of Akron, who represents the inmates. Armbruster said he hasn't been given access to the jail for a personal inspection of the conditions.
He said much of the problem seems to be from inadequate staffing, which was an issue when another group of inmates sued the county in 1992 over conditions at the old county jail on West Boardman Street. That lawsuit, also filed by Armbruster, is what led to construction of the new jail on Fifth Avenue, which opened in 1996.
Wellington said upgrades include kitchen renovations and adding 54 security cameras to the 88. He said the visual monitors will aid in proving or disproving assault complaints.
Trees around the jail complex were cut down and a chain-link fence is being added, the sheriff said.