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Friday, March 5th, 2010

Transition to new Mercer County detention center complete

By Margie Wuebker
A caravan of marked cruisers left the Mercer County Jail early Sunday carrying 24 inmates from the old building that served the area since 1939.
The inmates and their sack lunches were taken to the Auglaize County Jail to allow the public to tour the former jail, as well as the new Mercer County Adult Detention Center which has been home to the sheriff's office since early January.
"Everybody is under one roof now and everything appears to be working well," Sheriff Jeff Grey said Tuesday afternoon. "We had approximately 1,700 people show up for the tours and they seemed pleased with the new facility - it's a secure place but it's still a jail."
Tours stopped at 4 p.m. with all visitors clearing the detention center by 4:30. Corrections officers then searched the tour route to make sure nothing had been left behind.
"The transfer and intake took a little longer than expected," Grey said. "Supper was served later than expected (about 9:15 p.m.) but all in all most of the inmates were compliant. It was a long day for everyone involved."
Four individuals went in lockdown because of their demeanor. Three quickly followed the rules after going without fellow inmate contact and television. One man remains in lockdown while awaiting transfer to a prison in the wake of his Wednesday morning sentencing in Mercer County Common Pleas Court.
"Basically, their main complaint has been lack of control over the television remote control," Grey sad. "A corrections officer in the control room now selects what everybody watches. Let's face it, there are some things on television they don't need to watch."
There are no basketball games in the secure salliport as was the case at the old building, and no lounging on the 27-inch by 6-foot bunks throughout the day. Inmates may lie down beginning at 10 p.m. prior to lights out at 11:30. Everyone is expected to get up at 6 a.m. to prepare for breakfast 30 minutes later.
Inmates have started working in the kitchen and laundry areas as part of a supervised program, and they seem to enjoy being away from the dormitories and doing something constructive, according to Grey.
Inmates have learned that cleaning the living areas after breakfast provides TV privileges for the day. An inmate who does not cooperate eliminates the TV for everybody in the dormitory.
"The two practice sessions with carefully selected volunteers from the public certainly helped with our transition from one building to another," Grey said. "The staff learned a lot from those sessions and we thank everyone who gave up a day out of their busy lives."
The practices held twice during the month of February turned up some problems, including a camera providing blurry images, a hitch with video visiting equipment and the intake process for 24 inmates at one time.
Problems involving equipment have been corrected and the intake process was tweaked a bit Sunday. Inmates arrived wearing their standard black and white striped uniforms and traded them Monday for new color-coded attire - red for women, orange for male felons and beige for men facing misdemeanor charges. Those 18 to 20 years old wear forest green pants with shirt color denoting the level of offense. The slight deviation saved valuable time during the booking process, Grey said.
Grey and Capt. Jodie Lange, the jail administrator, visited each dormitory to gain additional input from the inmates and respond to their questions.
In keeping with state standards, inmates have access to board games and cards to pass the time. Paperback books will be available from a mini library and plans call for classes to be offered in a classroom area, both located within the secure perimeter. As the weather improves, inmates will be permitted outside at designated times. The walled exercise area provides glimpses of sky through security fencing but no other amenities.
"The taxpayers of Mercer County wanted a secure place in which to house people who break the law," the sheriff added. "While the new building is nice, it does not provide the comforts of home."
The sheriff's office is currently addressing the new transport process for inmates heading to municipal and common pleas court. Grey is looking into purchasing a van with funds realized through commissary sales. He admits providing service to the courts is no longer a matter of walking across the street."
Computers keep track of everything at the jail yielding valuable information ranging from the precise time an inmate used the intercom to how long it took to unlock a secure door for a staff member.
"It is so much safer," he added. "An employee is never out of sight of a camera and the same goes for an inmate."
As an added safety measure, the sheriff is considering the purchase of Taser guns for dealing with non-compliant inmates.
Meals are now prepared on site and the kitchen staff is looking at cost-saving measures. They have determined that hot oatmeal is cheaper than the cold cereal currently served. The same goes for tortillas instead of bread and a hot entree such as macaroni and cheese instead of a lunch meat sandwich.
"Taxpayers gave us the money to build this place," Grey said. "Now it is up to us to run it as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible."
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