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Ohio County Sheriff Can't Wait for Bigger Jail

Columbus Dispatch via YellowBrix

August 18, 2010

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, OH – Fairfield County Sheriff Dave Phalen says the solution to jail overcrowding is a new complex to replace two outdated jails in downtown Lancaster.

Phalen yesterday attributed a prisoner disturbance on Monday night at the maximum-security jail to overcrowding.

“We’ve got way too many people for the safety of our staff and the safety of other prisoners,” he told county commissioners.

The county’s maximum-security jail at 221 E. Main St., built in 1966, and minimum-security jail at 342 W. Wheeling St. in a former grocery store are able to house just over 100 prisoners combined.

But the prisoner count is often double that, so Phalen sends prisoners to other counties. He has said the practice costs the county about $600,000 annually.

Ninety-four prisoners were in the maximum-security jail Monday night. Yesterday, the sheriff sent 20 prisoners to other jails to relieve the crowding.

The ringleaders of and participants in the disturbance, which involved 23 prisoners housed in five cells, were not moved, however, Phalen said.

“The bottom line is, we’re going to need to build a new jail,” he said.

A city-county public-safety committee has been studying sites in Lancaster for a new complex that would combine the sheriff’s office with a 440-bed jail. The proposed complex would replace the maximum- and minimum-security jails and would be large enough to accommodate growth in the prisoner population. The county also would have excess cells to rent to other counties to make some money, officials have said.

There is no construction timetable, however, because officials have not chosen a site or figured out how they would pay for it.

Meanwhile, Phalen has proposed a work-release program in which nonviolent misdemeanor offenders, such as drug or alcohol abusers or parents who owe child support, would be spared jail in exchange for working, taking classes and submitting to drug testing.

The idea is to free up jail space, he said.

The sheriff said he plans to charge the prisoners involved in Monday’s disturbance with crimes related to arson, rioting and property destruction. His investigation will include reviewing videotape and interviewing other prisoners.

No one was injured in the disturbance, which began around 7:30 p.m. Prisoners in their locked cells, four or five to a cell, threw trays and other items out into the common room beyond the cells and, with a smuggled lighter, set toilet paper on fire and tried to light their mattresses, he said.

The sheriff said his deputies had identified four or five instigators of the disturbance who were upset that they had been confined to their cells as punishment for previous infractions.

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