Jail crowding raises safety issues, official says

By Peter H. Milliken



Mahoning County’s jail houses at least 20 more inmates than it should in the portions of the lockup that are now open, and the crowding presents safety concerns for inmates and deputy sheriffs, said Maj. Alki Santamas of the sheriff’s department.

The excess also puts the county at risk for another class-action lawsuit by prisoners alleging unconstitutional crowding, Santamas said. The inmates won a lawsuit they filed concerning crowding in 2003, causing the jail to be under federal court supervision until last year.

To open more of the main jail and possibly reopen the minimum-security jail for overnight use, Santamas is urging the commissioners to consider various options for increased funding for the sheriff’s department.

“The priority is high to alleviate the congestion we have with the prisoner population,” Santamas said.

However, John A. McNally IV, chairman of the county commissioners, said the county now needs to focus on maintaining the current level of jail operations.

Just to maintain current operations, McNally recalled, Sheriff Randall A. Wellington and Sgt. Thomas DeGenova told the commissioners last month they’d need $1.1 million in addition to the $13.5 million budget commissioners initially gave the sheriff for 2011.

“We simply do not have additional revenues at this time” to fully open the main jail or reopen the minimum- security jail, McNally said, adding that he doesn’t favor having the county borrow money for these purposes.

The 81.5 percent of the main jail that is now open should house 412 prisoners, if inmates are being properly separated according to their security classifications and other factors, Santamas said.

With this amount of jail space open, the inmate population never should exceed 458, he said. However, there are now 478 prisoners lodged in the jail, he said Friday.

Santamas attributed the high number of inmates to the usual summer increase in crime and arrests and to recent local law-enforcement sweeps that resulted in large numbers of arrests.

To keep the inmate population manageable, the jail has released 104 inmates since July 1 under its summons-arrest and emergency-release procedures, all of them nonviolent, except for two violent misdemeanor offenders, he said.

Santamas presented the commissioners two options for increasing main-jail capacity for the remainder of this year: Reopening 52 beds for an extra $202,568; or reopening 104 beds, which would reopen the entire main jail, for $405,136.

He also said they could reopen half of the 96-bed minimum-security jail for the rest of this year for an additional $270,091 or the entire minimum-security lockup for $540,181. The minimum-security lockup has been closed to overnight use since May 2010 and is now used only for the day-reporting inmate work program.

If the commissioners wish to open all of the main jail and reopen all of the minimum-security jail for the remainder of 2011 and recall all 44 laid-off deputies in doing so, the total additional cost would be $945,318, Santamas said. The department now has 200 deputies.

“With our population overcrowding as it is, any additional beds that we can get would benefit our current situation,” Santamas said without being specific as to where the commissioners should obtain the extra money.

When law-enforcement officials announce sweeps, such as the Violence Gun Reduction and Interdiction Program (VGRIP), they don’t discuss with county commissioners the additional jail beds to be occupied by those arrested in such sweeps, McNally said.

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