CINCINNATI -- Some county sheriffs are learning this week if they unwittingly violated Ohio law, after the first state review of their jail operations in five years.
Annual state inspections intended to ensure inmates are safe, that jails are secure and that they comply with the state’s minimum jail standards did not happen between 2008 and 2013 in Butler, Warren, Hamilton and Clermont counties—in addition to most other counties throughout the state.
That means the only eyes watching if and how jails met those state regulations were the jails' administrators and sheriffs themselves.
“Who’s guarding the guards or who’s watching the watchers? When there’s no oversight, conditions tend to deteriorate,” said Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News.
State budget cuts sliced the number of Ohio jail inspectors from four to one in 2011, and the state corrections department cut three additional personnel at the same time. It was a move that saved the department more than $500,000, but not without a price.
During that five-year period countless jails could have broken Ohio law by not meeting the state minimum standards , which set hundreds of criteria for jail security, housing, sanitation, staff training and more. But there's no way to know the extent of those violations because it was never recorded by the state.
A NEW PLAN
It’s up to each county to determine how to run their correctional facilities and to draft the policies within, but the state's minimum jail standards ensure consistency across the board.
Jails are legally bound to follow specifications like the type of lighting used in prisoner reading areas, the plan for responding to suicidal prisoners, access to medical care and the frequency that issued clothing should be washed or exchanged.
It falls on the state jail inspectors, then, to enforce those rules and to document when a facility does not comply. It's all included in a report that's then shared with jail and county administrators.
“The jail inspections are critical,” said Al Gerhardstein, a Cincinnati-based civil rights attorney who commonly represents inmates from Ohio’s county jails. “While I’ve always been eager to see more teeth with the [inspection] report card, at least the report card puts people on notice that they have problems that ought to be solved. That’s a step in the right direction and without that we’re failing those people that we lock up.”
But with only one inspector left in the department, the annual on-site inspections at more than 200 jails across the state had to stop.
Roger Wilson, parole program administrator at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, said a lack of resources prompted the department to alter its plans. It asked jails to inspect themselves and submit reports to the lone jail inspector in the state, who was still responding to complaints and questions from county jail employees.
“In some instances, it made jails look at more areas than an inspector would look at because the self inspection touched on all of the standards whereas the on-site [inspections] touched on a subset of those standards,” said Wilson.
The self-inspection reports were intended to be more thorough than the day-long on-sight visits, although there wasn’t a mechanism in place to prevent a facility from fabricating its compliance with the standards.
“We were kind of pleasantly surprised that jails were marking themselves non-compliant in some areas, but we also did notice that they were marking some areas compliant that we subsequently found to be non-compliant when we were on-site,” said Wilson.
But the department said there’s no evidence to support falsified reports received from jail staff.
Wilson said the self-inspections were ordered in waves across the state’s four jail regions—the northern region, central region, eastern region and western region, which includes jails in southwest Ohio counties.
But only jails in the central and northern regions of the state were officially ordered to submit reports. Wilson said that’s because the department thought of a new way to proceed in September 2012.
“We were a couple of months into the [self-inspections], trying to figure out the best way to move forward and the best way to meet our statutory obligation. We realized that we could actually do on-sight inspections with the one jail inspector but that we would have to do it on a bi-annual basis in order to get all of our jails done,” he said.
That inspector resumed on-sight inspections at jails in the central region first, but never made it to the Butler, Warren, Hamilton or Clermont County jails before a second inspector came on board in April 2013.
So, minimum jail standards were not enforced for half a decade in the southwest part
of the state.
Ohio’s jail inspections are back in action statewide now that a second jail inspector has joined the Ohio corrections staff. The department still operates on about $455,000 less than when funding was first cut in 2011.
“The impact of not having inspections was, to my surprise, that the jail community wanted it. The jail community wanted an independent inspection of how they were doing relative to those standards,” said Wilson.
Full-service jails in Clermont, Warren and Hamilton counties had their reviews this fall and an inspector is scheduled to walk through the Butler County facility later this month.
Now that those jails are getting reviewed after such a long time without, some jail officials have gone the extra mile to make sure they're prepared for the state visit.
Maj. Charmaine McGuffy, jail administrator at the Hamilton County Justice Center, said her staff attended inspection training prior to their state inspection in September to learn about what they needed to prepare for, following that five-year gap without inspections.
“If someone is going to come in and scrutinize what you’re doing, you’re going to be more vigilant in the little things,” said McGuffy.
She said her administration has only been in command for eight months, so they were especially anxious about this visit from the state, amid a general shift in her jail’s operations.
But she said the visit didn't go as well as planned, although it could be some time before the facility sees their official report.
“We got as many things done as we could and the jail inspector came through and found a number of things that he did not like,” she said, attributing many of the problems to procedures inherited from the previous jail administration.
Wilson said the department accounts for how changes in an administration could impact a jail’s ability to comply.
“There’s turnover among jail administrators and jail personnel and sometimes new folks coming in. They might not have the understanding that the more experience administrator had so there could be a misinterpretation of what the standard is asking for,” he said.
But even if a jail does not meet certain standards, Wilson said there are no repercussions for receiving a bad report.
“They are notified of the standards for which they are not in compliance and are provided information relative to preparing an action plan to come into compliance,” he said.
The completed reports are shared with county and jail officials and are also reviewed by Wilson, who said he checks each one for completeness and accuracy but does not perform a critical review.
The department director ultimately has the ability to close a jail when it does not comply by seeking contempt of court action, but Wilson said that has never been done in the Ohio department's history.
Unlike Ohio, officials at the Kentucky Department of Corrections have closed a jail for failing to comply with state standards. On Jan. 15, 2013, the department closed the McCreary County Jail.
Kentucky state officials conduct two inspections at its jails each year—one scheduled and one unannounced. Six jail inspectors work for the state.
“You never know when they are coming back so it ensures [the jails] do everything continuously,” said Todd Henson, public information officer at the Kentucky Department of Corrections.
Gerhardstein said he thinks that’s a good model that should be used in Ohio, too.
“I think that you should always have the capacity and the freedom to walk in unannounced,” he said.
But Wilson said the Ohio department believes its scheduled inspections work just fine in the state.
“We don't think that the fact that our jail inspections are announced impacts the quality of our findings because we still find jails that are not in compliance,” he said.
ARE THEY EFFECTIVE?
The phrase “non-compliant” does little to intimidate most within the jail community since there are no enforced consequences for not following the law.
That’s why some say the state inspections are not effective.
“If you’ve got standards and no teeth to back them up, you might as well not have any,” said Lance Weber, general counsel at the Human Rights Defense Center, a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of the human rights of people held in U.S. detention facilities. “There’s nothing that forces the jails to meet those standards. It’s all sort of discretionary. That’s the real story. It’s an exercise of showmanship.”
But others argue that an outside pair of eyes gives county administrations the extra push they need to address their deficiencies.
“It’s probably natural to think sometimes when things don’t happen, you can relax a bit,” said Warren County Sheriff Larry Sims. “It does help to know that you’re going to have somebody looking at those rules and regulations and how you’re going to handle that….You want to make sure you're dotting every I and crossing every T.”
Warren County Jail officials say they took extra preparations
to make sure they were ready for their jail inspection in late August. They were given 30-days to prepare, and divvied up their policies among their staff to make sure they were still meeting the state’s requirements, given the multi-year inspection lapse.
Maj. Barry Riley, Warren County Jail administrator, said the state jail inspector asked him to make several minor changes at the facility to meet compliance. Those changes ranged from from word selection in their policies and documentation of practices to creating an official procedure for providing translation services for non-English speaking inmates.
“When you've got somebody coming in, there always is anxiousness about 'Ok, how did we do?'” said Sims.
It may keep them on their toes, but Riley said he doesn’t think the state’s current inspections are thorough enough.
“He's here for six hours to totally evaluate an entire jail on these standards. It's a flawed system,” said Riley.
But Wilson said he believes the state’s current jail inspection system is effective, given the department's limited resources.
“That's not to say that I think it's a perfect system or that it can't be improved,” he said, without commenting on specific changes he’d like to have made. “Generally speaking, people would always love to have an unlimited number of resources—just throw in an issue. You know, but we also understand the reality. “
He said the relationship between county jail administrators and the state is usually positive, and most jails have a desire to improve.
“When we have found jails to be non-compliant, those jails have been willing to work towards compliance. I'm not aware of an instance where a non-compliant jail has said, ‘Well we're not going to do it,’” said Wilson.
But there are a few instances where county jails say they have no plans to comply with some state standards. Some cite a difference of opinion and others blame it on their lack of resources.
Riley and Sims said the Warren County jail is choosing not to comply with their inspector’s orders to close an improperly functioning door in their booking area, as they have deliberately left it open for the safety and efficiency of their operations.
“It's one of those standards, and while we respect that standard, we just wholeheartedly disagree. We're going to leave that door open for the safety of our staff members,” said Sims.
McGuffy said there are several standards that the Hamilton County Justice Center will not be able to meet because they don’t have the funds to comply. One includes the overcrowding of the facility.
“We need money for more manpower. We need money for any kind of renovation we want to do. We need money to do some of those things that the jail inspection pointed out to us,” she said.
Cpt. Bill Hogue at the Clermont County Jail the state inspector identified a similar problem at their facility during his visit in September.
“Due to our high population, we had people in our holding facilities longer than they were supposed to be,” said Hogue. “But that’s a funding issue. We’re going to get hit where we can’t resolve.”
It’s a problem that even the state has acknowledged.
“They want to do everything they can to come into compliance with jail standards, but you know, one of the most common challenges that we've seen that jails face with respect to compliance is funding,” said Wilson.
But without those reports during that five-year gap, no one on the outside knew when a jail chose to ignore state rules.
“Inspections are there to document problems and abuses and to use that documentation to encourage reforms, so they are useful in litigation. It can also be used as a shaming technique,” said Friedmann. “But if there is a period of time there were no inspections, you can’t report on a finding because there’s no finding.”
McGuffy said she plans to share her inspection report with Hamilton County Commissioners to use it as leverage for getting funding to make the improvements, and Gerhardstein said that’s exactly what inspections are intended to do.
“[Jail officials] are competing for money just like everyone else in county government, but unless there is a standard they can point to that says ‘We need to meet these standards, and this is what we need to achieve it,’ they don't have any leverage,” he said.
INSPECTED BY THE FEDS
The Butler County Jail is expecting its 2013 inspection later this month, but Chief Anthony Dwyer said he’s not taking any extra steps to prepare.
“Quite frankly, the state inspection is not something that is terribly concerning for us, as we get inspected quite regularly by the [federal government] so it's part of our operation, and it’s not a problem,” he said.
The Butler County facility currently houses 166 federal marshal inmates and 73 inmates from Immigration Custom Enforcement, in addition to about 600 inmates that come from the county.
Unlike the Warren, Hamilton and Clermont County jails, Butler County has been inspected 13 times at the federal level
Wilson said the department is on track to complete all inspections this year on the state's full-service facilities, but will not be able to resume on-site inspections at Ohio’s 139 temporary holding facilities.
The state says the Warren and Clermont County jail inspection reports are completed and have been sent to the counties, but the Hamilton County report hasn't been prepared.