By Margie Wuebker
The 33-bed Mercer County Jail is literally bursting at the seams as the number of inmates facing serious felony charges continues to mount.
There are currently 33 prisoners with four more expected, meaning new arrivals will receive mattresses to sleep on the floor. Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey said it's standing room only at mealtime.
"We have released as many of the bad guys as we can," Grey told Mercer County Commissioners who met Tuesday afternoon. "I am here keeping you guys in the loop ... cops, prosecutors and the courts are doing a good job, but where do we put all the inmates?"
With the exception of one inmate being held without bond on a misdemeanor, the other men and women face felonies ranging from aggravated robbery to rape. There are seven sex offenders, five of whom have been indicted for rape and must be kept away from the general population, Grey said.
One inmate also is on suicide watch requiring five-minute checks around the clock while another is bipolar, subject to mood swings. The overcrowding issue is not likely to be resolved soon as only one inmate is awaiting completion of paperwork before transfer to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. The remainder are involved in court proceedings, Grey said.
Grey plans to bring in one extra corrections officer during these busy times, adding this is more cost effective than shipping inmates to other county jails at a per diem cost of $42 per person. The amount does not include transportation costs or the cost of pulling a deputy off the road to make the transport.
In response to questions from commissioner Bob Nuding, the sheriff admitted there is always a risk to releasing prisoners; even those charged with non-violent crimes.
"I won't kick loose a rapist or someone who committed a violent crime," Grey said. "Even someone charged with writing bad checks poses a threat to society as well as businesses who stand to lose thousands of dollars."
The sheriff can get authority from a judge to release a prisoner.
Grey noted all convicted felons in prison, and more specifically on death row, spent time in county jails at one time or another. John Spirko, who was found guilty of slaying an Elgin postmistress, was incarcerated here during court proceedings because Van Wert County had no such facility at the time, he said.
Along with an increase in violent crime, the sheriff said he has seen a shift toward perpetrators coming into the county from elsewhere. A current case involving the discovery of crack cocaine here traced the illegal drug to Allen County resulting in the issuance of search warrants in the Lima area. Methamphetamine, produced by cooks who travel from one area to another, also is a growing problem in the area.