By Margie Wuebker
A proposed construction project to replace the aging Mercer County Jail has passed its first hurdle with the Ohio Bureau of Adult Detention approving phase one of the plans -- with some stipulations.
Phase one is merely the first in a succession of hurdles county officials must negotiate during the coming months. This initial step spells out in written form how a new 90- to 100-bed jail will be staffed and what spaces or rooms are needed to accomplish the job.
Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey proposes assigning three staff members -- one roving corrections officer, one supervisor in central control and one booking officer. With the exception of the supervisor in the facility's nerve center, the other officers could respond whenever help is needed.
The bureau recommends an additional security officer responsible for supervising inmates, citing the minimum staffing formula of one post per 48 prisoners.
Bureau representatives Steven Myers and Brandi Schmidt also recommended the central control post become a two-person post if duties there include supervising inmates. Additionally, they cited the need for booking and central control duties to be separate from housekeeping duties, at least for expected busy shifts. "This is a real sticking point with me," Grey told The Daily Standard. "I feel the first three to six months of operation will be a trial period, during which time we can adequately assess staffing needs. The bureau wants to start with additional people and then cut back if we see the need is not there."
Grey believes the sheriff and the county commissioners should control staffing levels since the Ohio Revised Code (Section 341.05) implies "The sheriff shall assign sufficient staff to ensure the safety and secure operation of the county jail, but staff shall be assigned only to the extent such staff can be provided with funds appropriated to the sheriff at the discretion of the board of county commissioners."
Unfortunately, the bureau recommendation comes with no added dollars. The cost of one additional post on each of three daily shifts week in and week out would amount to $200,000 annually. That figure does not take into account pay raises, insurance increases and other factors.
Grey also labels other suggestions as "downright silly," including water coolers in each dorm area, dry-off areas with built-in seats in shower areas and a readily accessible restroom and drinking facility in the outdoor recreation area where inmates go for an hour per day. He believes many area residents make do without such conveniences.
"Some of the recommendations are good," he said. "And others are questionable. The commissioners and I are interested in building a reasonable jail the county can afford."
The goal of the sheriff and Shremshock Architects Inc. of Dublin was to design a jail that would require minimal corrections personnel. The design gives staff the ability to see into all areas where prisoners have access while the bureau report cites a need for more privacy.
"I just don't understand," Grey said. "When problems occur in the jail, it is with an inmate who gets into areas where we cannot observe."
Other bureau recommendations include: the addition of a door to the clothing exchange/strip search area as well as some type of seating; moving a toilet in one cell so it cannot be viewed from either door; installing partitions to obscure the view in shower rooms; and reducing the number of windows overlooking the laundry area where inmates will be working. The latter recommendation was made to provide more space for file cabinets.
"Inmates deserve humane treatment and security," Grey said. "Inmates receive humane treatment but they check their privacy at the door. The best way to provide security is to have open sight lines and restrict movement as much as possible"
The sheriff will not be swayed easily because he knows even a no-frills approach comes with a $12 million price tag.
"It is easy to sit in Columbus and tell us how to build the Mercer County Jail," Grey said. "We do not intend to approach voters next year with a cushy or homey jail. A jail should be a place you prefer not to come back to once your sentence is served."