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Jail report leaves warden puzzled

The Columbiana County Jail is on County Home Road west of Lisbon. (File photo by Patti Schaeffer)

LISBON –A recent grand jury report critical of the Columbiana County Jail has the warden puzzled.

The report, among other things, concluded the jail is “totally unsafe,” that inmates were running the facility and some of the corrections officers seem intimidated by them.

“I don’t know how they reached some of the conclusions when in a 40-minute tour they didn’t talk to any (COs) or inmates,” said Mike Curley, who met with the nine grand jurors before accompanying them on their tour.

State law requires county jails be inspected by the grand jury at least four times per year, and their findings are included in the grand jury report that accompanies the list of people who have been indicted, which is made public. The report is prepared by the county prosecutor’s office based on the grand jury comments.

The grand jurors are to inquire about the treatment of inmates, their diet and accommodations. The findings are always brief, usually consisting of a series of bullet points, and never come with specifics to support any of the conclusions. For example, the latest report does not include any additional details about why they believe “the jail is totally unsafe” or why they believed inmates were running the facility.

Curley has no idea how the grand jury reached that conclusion from the Aug. 14 tour of the jail. They were brought to the jail from the county courthouse by a sheriff’s deputy, and Curley said they spent the first 38 minutes meeting with him in his office and 36 minutes touring the jail.

“They didn’t talk to a single inmate. They didn’t talk to a single corrections officer and they didn’t go into a single pod (cell block),” he said. They were able to look into the pods from the safety of the main hallway as they toured the jail.

To support his claim, Curley allowed this reporter to watch the video of the grand jury tour. The only person the grand jurors appeared to speak with a length, besides Curley, was the food service supervisor while touring the kitchen. The inmates in the maximum security wing remained secured in the pods and never came in contact with jurors, but the grand jury did see several inmates in passing when touring the minimum security wing.

“They had to come here with preconceptions because you can’t come to some of the conclusions they came to without talking to staff or prisoners, and they did neither,” Curley said.

One of his staff did recognize a grand juror as the parent of two people who had been inmates, he said.

The jail has come under increased scrutiny over the past two years following a steady stream of county sheriff’s reports about incidents at the facility and other complaints. The grand jury report also comes after two recent publicized incidents.

In June, three inmates escaped from the minimum security wing by breaking out a window and cutting a hole in the fence using a cutting device that staff believe was placed by the fence for them to use. One returned to the jail and other two were caught the next day.

Then on Aug. 7, a man taken to the jail following his arrest for violating a protection order later walked away after being taken to a local hospital to be examined. The jail staff had failed to arrange for a sheriff’s deputy to accompany the prisoner to the hospital and bring him back, which is policy.

There were other issues raised in the grand jury report that Curley believes were opinions based on a lack of understanding about how the jail operates. For example, the report stated the camera system should be monitored by staff around the clock. He said there is someone in the main control room at all times where the camera monitors are, and one of their duties is to monitor the camera system. He said there are other jail staff who can monitor the cameras from their work stations, as can the deputy assigned to the jail and the sheriff.

Curley believes the grand jury was surprised to learn each pod in the maximum security wing — which is a secure area unto itself — is generally staffed by one CO. Inmates cannot get beyond their pods and into the main hallway that leads to the other areas of the jail.

Curley, who works for the private company hired by commissioners to operate the jail, comes from a career in the Michigan state prison system, where it was common for one CO to supervise a cell block of 240 inmates,

“So to a non-practitioner (someone not in the corrections profession) it might seem shocking,” Curley said.

Each CO now receives a radio that has an emergency “man down” button to push when in trouble or there is a situation beyond their control. This alerts the person in the master control room.

Some of the findings were opinions, such as the staff should receive additional training twice a year. Curley said any new hire undergoes extensive training and receives additional in-service training on an as-needed basis. Curley said he and assistant warden Tom Mackie have a combined 65 years of experience and put that to use in training the staff.

At least one assertion — that inmates were only receiving psychological care twice a month — was incorrect. Curley said they receive counseling twice a week.

Some of the criticism was valid, especially those directed at the minimum security wing (MSW). The report described the living conditions there as “deplorable.” Following a tour of the jail in 2018, The Review reported the MSW was run down and badly in need of a facelift, and Curley would not disagree.

“During the tour I told the grand jury I didn’t like how things were at the MSW at present but we have a plan to correct things,” he said.

Originally built nearly 50 years ago to serve as a county nursing home for the indigent, the facility had been closed for years when county commissioners converted it into the MSW of the new jail complex built in the mid 1990s. Curley said some of the conditions witnessed by the grand jury –holes in the wall and closet doors removed in the nursing home rooms — occurred during contraband searches implemented following the June escape. He said they found contraband, mostly tobacco products, hidden in the walls.

He said there were enough undamaged rooms for inmates. On the day of the grand jury tour, there were only nine inmates in the minimum security wing, which can house up to 88.

The damage has not been repaired because county commissioners have agreed to pay for a major renovation of the MSW, starting with eliminating half the individual nursing home rooms and turning that section into barracks-style living quarters. Curley said this will improve security since one CO will be able to keep an eye on the entire population at bedtime.

Since the escape, commissioners have also provided additional funding for the installation of a second perimeter fence topped with razor wire that will be 30 feet from the existing fence. Curley hopes adding a 14-foot-high second fence will eliminate the ability of outsiders to leave contraband at the fence for inmates and reduce the ability to throw items over the fence for inmates.

As an extra precaution, the inmates’ outdoor area is being scaled back. They will no longer have access to the front area of the MSW that parallels County Home Road. This is the area where inmates escaped in June and believed to have left in a waiting vehicle.

Commissioners have also given Curley permission to purchase stainless steel expanded metal to place over the glass windows. The escapees reached the fence by simply breaking a window.

“I’ve been asking to secure those windows forever and now I’m allowed to do that,” her said.

Also, all windows at both the MSW and maximum security wing are being frosted to prevent inmates from communicating with anyone outside. Curley said they have been known to hold up signs to communicate with someone in the parking lot.

The grand jury report also claimed the jail was understaffed. Curley said they have a total of 62 positions, 40 of which are COs and the rest are in administration, medical, food service and health care. There are currently three open CO positions in the process of being filled.

While staff turnover has been a problem, including at the warden position, Curley — who has been warden for nearly two years — said the situation has begun to stabilize. This occurred after the company raised starting pay from $10.91 an hour to $14.

Two criticisms were directed at Curley, saying he “needs to be as concerned about the safety of the guards instead of his ’51 cents a head’ meals.” Curley said the comment about how much they spend on inmate meals came from his conversation with the grand jury.

“I’m pretty proud of the fact that my food service supervisor is able to make bulk purchases that enable us” to feed inmates at the lowest possible price while still meeting inmates’ nutritional needs, he said. The meals provide inmates with 3,000 calories per day, which exceeds the recommended daily average of 2,500 for an adult male.

Curley said at the end of the day they are in compliance with standards as set forth by the Ohio Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The report also stated that Curley seemed to downplay inmate assaults on COs, telling them the assaults consist of a “push.” The grand jury said they knew that was not true because they had just considered an indictment of an inmate accused of assaulting a guard.

Curley said that comment was misconstrued and that while COs are assaulted on occasion, most incidents involve a shove or something of that sort and do not necessarily rise to the level of what is considered a serious assault.

“Corrections work is inherently dangerous, and bad things happen in the best jails and prisons,” he said.

Last week, a former CO was charged with smuggling a phone to an inmate, and the week before an inmate was hospitalized after swallowing razor blades. Curley said these incidents, while unfortunate, are fairly common in all jails and prisons.

Just this past week, two COs at the Cuyahoga County Jail were charged with working with incarcerated gang members to sell drugs inside the facility to other inmates. The troubled jail was also found to have 61 inmate incidents involving contraband drugs last year, three of which resulted in inmate overdose deaths.

tgiambroni@mojonews.com

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