DAYTON, Ohio – For the first time Tuesday, a female prisoner will attend a family member’s funeral without leaving the Dayton Correctional Institution.
She won't get to participate; but she will be able to attend -- virtually, while sitting in the prison chaplains' office.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections changed its policy in August to use web video streaming – when available and approved by prison officials – to allow prisoners to visit gravely ill relatives or to "attend" family funerals.
That technology is not available at the Warren County Jail, where an inmate failed to return from a court-approved, unaccompanied furlough to attend his mother’s funeral Oct. 29.
Police are still searching for Sherman Edmonds, 53, after Warren County Judge Donald Oda granted Edmond’s six-and-a-half hour temporary release to allow him to go the funeral. He ordered Edmonds, who was jailed awaiting trial on a theft charge, to return by 4:30 p.m.
There is no uniform policy that outlines when inmates can temporarily leave county jails – usually to seek medical treatment or to visit a sick relative. Judges, who weigh a series of factors, are left to make those calls.
“You’re doing it because the need for release is greater than the risk of them not coming back,” said Warren County Common Pleas Judge James Flannery. “We’re confronted with what is usually a temporary limited problem.”
Flannery said he and other judges must constantly weigh the potential problems that could arise if an inmate walks the streets alone.
“I judge based on experience, their background. There are a lot of factors you’ll look at. People who have an education are less likely to repeat. People who had a steady job are less likely to repeat. People who have a family connection where somebody cares about them,” he said.
Judges also consider the severity of the inmate’s charges and the necessity of the request.
“You get some (requests) that are frivolous. They want to take a test for a commercial drivers license or finish a college course,“ said Flannery. “ And if they’ve committed a very serious (drunk driving) case or someone has been seriously injured or killed, you can’t take the risk. No judge is going to furlough those people.”
Jail inmates granted furloughs are usually sent alone because some jail administrators say they don’t have the resources to send a guard with the individual on his or her temporary leave.
“The sheriff doesn’t want to pay a deputy to transport somebody to a funeral and back. That’s what the judge is trying to weigh. Do you have responsible family members that will pick them up?” said Flannery.
Ohio Prisons Have Stricter Protocol
In Ohio’s prison system, at least two guards are required to accompany and constantly supervise a prisoner attending a funeral or sick relative.
No family members are allowed to be present during either circumstance, which typically lasts no more than an hour, and the family members must pay for the prisoner's transport.
"We deal with the funeral home directly and work out a time. We do not share that time with the family members because we feel that if the family members are there, there might a concern," said Ricky Seyfang, spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. "Because just like anything you have emotions--raw emotions."
A department policy dictates protocol for vetting all prison furlough requests, including verifying the relationship of deceased to the prisoner. Furloughs are only granted to attend the funeral of an immediate family member.
Prisoner policy dictates that only prisoners can be considered for furlough if they haven't tried to escape in the past decade, are convicted of less than four felonies and are not classified as maximum security.
But even with those set rules, Seyfang said the decision to release is made at the discretion of the corrections staff.
"The ultimate goal is to try to protect the offender from harm, protect the citizens and protect the staff. It's looked at real closely and there's no cookie cutter process," she said.
Visits Via Video
The department changed its policy this summer to offer web-based video streaming instead of a physical visit when technology is available at a funeral home or hospital to minimize potential escapes or harmful situations, Seyfang said.
Each prison is required to determine if a web-based funeral visit or bedside visit is an option before approving an escorted visit to the funeral home or hospital.
"If you think about it, it saves the family money and it keeps the offender behind the gate. Anytime you take someone out, you take that seriously," Seyfang said.
The Dayton Correctional Institution partnered with Tufts Schildemeyer Family Funeral Home and Cremation Center to organize the first web-based funeral Tuesday.
The female prisoner will watch the funeral via a web link from the prison chaplains' office.
"I think it's going to be more convenient to not have the officers be able to be relieved to coordinate transportation. The chaplain will be with her the whole time. There will be counseling available and mental health services available," said Ronda Bogan, an administrative assistant at the correctional facility who coordinated the arrangements with the funeral home.
Prison officials say the technology has never been used at the Lebanon or Warren County Correctional Institutions, although both facilities are equipped with the resources to make it happen if they encounter a funeral home that can, too.
Judge: ‘Furloughs have a legitimate place’
The Warren County jail isn't planning to use it anytime soon--even with one of their inmate's on the loose.
"Prison is a different situation," said Flannery. "They've already been convicted and have a much greater security risk than we do."
Maj. Barry Riley, Warren County jail administrator, said the jail cannot afford to add that technology at the moment, but may consider it as an option in the future.
"Everything is money driven, of course," he said. "Would that work for furloughs? I don't know if it would or not."
While Warren County sheriff deputies continue to search for Edmonds, Flannery said the situation won't deter the county judges from continuing to permit temporary leaves.
"Just because somebody walks away from furlough doesn't mean it's a big deal," he said. "We won't end the furlough option. This guy won't ever get one again because he's messed up, but that doesn't mean the guy won't come back. Furloughs have a legitimate place."