Hamilton County sheriff declares 'state of emergency' at jail due to overcrowding

CINCINNATI -- The sheriff has declared a "state of emergency" at the jail due to overcrowding.

The Hamilton County Justice Center population reached 1,611 inmates over the weekend, while it is designed to hold a maximum of 1,240, Sheriff Jim Neil said during a news conference Wednesday. The jail population has been past the 1,240 mark for about 190 days. 

"We've reached an unsafe level in our county jail with overcrowding," Neil said.

The jail is outside acceptable practices and operating "far below" state jail minimum standards, Neil wrote in a letter to Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune Wednesday. 

Ohio's jail minimum standards set requirements for numerous aspects of jails, including the size and maximum occupancy of holding cells, housing cells, sleeping dorms and day areas.

Overcrowding has led to as many as 50 inmates sleeping on portable beds in open areas with just two officers guarding them, Neil said. 

Dave Turner, the jail operations commander, said inmates have grown irritated because of limited access to showers, phones and visits. In one case, authorities recovered a "shank" from an inmate in one of the open sleeping areas, according to Neil.

"It's creating a lot of tension," he said.

Major Chris Ketteman said inmates staying in open areas have had to share restroom facilities designed for one person.

"Imagine 30 or 40 inmates in that room, and they decide they want to get out of control," he said. "We have no cells to put them in. We're kind of at their mercy."

Neil has also been reaching out to neighboring counties to determine their ability to house inmates in an effort to alleviate overcrowding. Hamilton County sent 25 inmates up to the Butler County Jail Wednesday, he said. 

"I'll remind you this is not an easy decision, but it is the right thing to do and my only option," Neil wrote of declaring the state of emergency. "State law does not allow me to alter inmate sentences."

For about a year, Neil wrote that he has been warning other county agencies about "the disturbing and upward trend of our inmate population count at the jail." This past week, the jail "reached a boiling point" due to overcrowding.

"I cannot and will not jeopardize the safety of my deputies and subject them to an ongoing, volatile, dangerous environment in our jail," Neil wrote. "Nor will I put the inmates, medical staff and others in harm's way."

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