GEORGETOWN — The Brown County Commissioners have a lot on their minds these days.
In the past week, the commissioners have not only closed the Brown County Jail due to legal liabilities and unsafe working conditions, but have been forced to spend in excess of $1 million outside of their budget on housing inmates at the Brown County jail, ferrying the inmates back and forth for court hearings, and the renovation of the malfunctioning jail cells.
In addition, the commissioners have had to reject a couple of potential remedies from the Brown County Sheriff’s Office on ways to continue operating at least part of the jail, either due to legal advice from the county’s attorney or due to state mandates.
At the emergency meeting when the commissioners announced that they were emptying and closing the jail until further notice, members of the BCSO administration including Sheriff Dwayne Wenninger asked for potentially finding a way to use the jail’s holding cells, which use a key to lock the doors and are in good shape.
This week, the commissioners have rejected the BCSO’s request to use the holding cells, first on the grounds of legal liability, were someone to get injured, and secondly because it could violate state code.
One direction the commissioners are looking into is having the holding cells be used as part of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s temporary holding facility guidelines. The guidelines mandate that the facility can keep inmates in the cells for a maximum of six hours, that 20 feet of space is provided for each inmate, seating is required for each inmate, and that a member of the staff checks on the inmates once every 60 minutes, among other requirements.
According to the commissioners, the temporary holding cell could be used to house inmates either around when they have a court appearance or after they are arrested and booked, and then are awaiting transportation to Butler County’s Jail.
However, according to the commissioners, the BCSO is asking to use the holding cells to keep an inmate for 18 to 24 hours, which would not be in compliance with the temporary holding facility guidelines.
“If they want to expand that, it falls into the 12-hour and beyond facility, which we’re trying to fix now,” commissioner Barry Woodruff said.
In the meantime, the commissioners are busy contacting jail door manufacturing companies. Two of the companies that have been contacted are Southern Folger in San Antonio, Texas and Willo Product Co. Inc. out of Decatur, Ala.
“When we finish this process, we’re going to have four companies bidding,” Woodruff said.
Woodruff said that he was going to take his time in this process to make sure that the jail is completely safe.
“While (the jail is closed), we need to look that jail over A to Z, have inspectors come in, look it over properly, and say ‘can we spend this to upgrade it’, ‘how are we going to find the money’, and ‘can we do this in sections or are we going to do it all at once’,” Woodruff said.
The commissioners confirmed that they spend $7,600 per day to the BCSO, which is more than the $6,000 or so per day that the county is estimated to pay to house inmates at Butler County. Some of that payment goes to BCSO employees, but a large chunk of it goes to running the jail.
“I think we need to look at total cost, what we’re spending, and then look at this is what it’s going to take to make it a safe environment to work in,” Woodruff said.
In addition, Woodruff said that in a future jail there has to be money set aside for serious maintenance costs.
In terms of money, the commissioners are looking all around for it. They’re in contact with State Representative Doug Green and State Senator Joe Uecker to see if they can receive some funds from Columbus, and they’re also looking at grants from the state level.
Those grants though would be to build a regional jail, combining resources from multiple counties. While the commissioners acknowledged the challenges of pulling a feat like that off, Commissioner Tony Applegate estimated that a regional jail would save the county three or four million dollars in construction costs.
“If we’re going to spend $7 or $8 million to build a jail, but if we can build a three-county regional jail for $15 million, that’s $5 million per county,” Applegate estimated. “If the state reimburses us one-third of the costs, now we’re down instead of spending $7 or $8 million, we can spend $3.5 or $4 million, and the operation going forward would be a lot cheaper, including maintenance of the building, one kitchen, one administrative office, etc.”
The commissioners agreed to start looking into the possibilities of acquiring state grants for a regional jail, and if they get confirmation that it’s a possibility, they’d start lobbying Adams County and Highland County to see if the neighboring counties would warm to the idea of a regional jail.