CLASS-ACTION LAWSUIT Jail dispute entering final lap
County says inmates get wide-ranging privileges.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County's failure to adequately fund the sheriff's department means too few guards at the jail, resulting in a violation of inmates' constitutional rights, attorneys for the inmates said in post-trial briefs in federal court.
Akron lawyers Robert Armbruster and Thomas Kelley argue that the situation amounts to punishment of pretrial detainees and cruel and unusual punishment for inmates serving a sentence.
The Akron lawyers brought a class-action lawsuit on behalf of inmates against the county and Sheriff Randall A. Wellington.
They say that, rather than find ways to reduce inmate population to coincide with reduced staff, the jail population has actually increased. Not only were inmates double bunked in single cells, but federal detainees were brought in, which further exacerbated the situation, they argue.
U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd Jr. asked both sides to file their post-trial briefs in lieu of closing arguments after the federal trial two months ago. If he agrees that inmates rights are being violated, Judge Dowd can order that the jail population -- which has been hovering around 640 -- be reduced.
To get a clear picture of the sheriff's department's financial condition, the judge also requested a report of the department's funding for 2005.
Columbus lawyers Daniel T. Downey and Mark Landes represent the county and sheriff. In January, they told the judge that Mahoning County commissioners had voted Dec. 30, 2004, to make a $3.11 million temporary allocation to the sheriff's department.
Last week, because of the failure of a half-cent sales tax, the commission slashed the sheriff's budget to $7.5 million for 2005, from a requested $16.9 million.
Neither the defendants' or plaintiffs' post-trial briefs, filed Monday and Tuesday, respectively, refer to the final budget amount.
In its post-trial brief, the county contends that the evidence failed to prove jail conditions pose a substantial risk of serious harm to the prisoners. The county argues that double bunking is an accepted practice that was anticipated when the jail opened in 1996.
The jail, designed to hold 434 inmates in single 7- by 10-foot cells, has installed permanent second bunks in 168 of those cells. It has also been using temporary movable bunks as needed.
Downey and Landes, speaking for the county, said inmates receive a wide range of privileges, including cable TV, showers, access to washers and dryers, indoor recreation, visitation, use of a commissary, rehabilitation-type training and much more.
But the plaintiff's argue that those privileges are mostly unavailable because of prolonged periods when inmates are locked in their cells because there are too few guards. They said the sheriff pulls deputies from the jail to perform other duties, which creates unsafe conditions.
"The jail remains significantly understaffed and continues to be a very dangerous place," the plaintiffs said, quoting trial testimony of deputies. They quoted one deputy's log entry for a section of the jail: "Unsafe working conditions due to only nine deputies working."
The county contend that inmates receive reasonably adequate food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, medical care and personal safety. While inmates may not have access to programs they had in the past, there exists a fundamental difference between depriving a prisoner privileges he may enjoy and depriving him of the basic necessities of life, defendants contend.