Should Middletown keep its unique city jail? Officials are struggling for that answer

Faced with annual budget of more than $1 million and consistent failing grades on state inspections, Middletown officials are continuing to evaluate what to do with the 43-year-old city jail, one of the few such facilities in Ohio.

Officials started their scrutiny of the jail about two years ago while considering the costs and the possibility that state restrictions could force them to close the jail. The city budgeted $1.3 million to operate the jail this year.

However, the budget calls for housing 40 inmates per day, which is above the state recommendation of capacity of 34 inmates or fewer and well below the 70 to 90 housed by triple-bunking in past years.

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The most recent state inspection results, from 2017, noted that the jail did not comply with 12 standards — one essential and 11 important standards. Some of the issues include the need to better secure the booking area, inadequate seating, inadequate natural light and issues with shower areas.

Some have concerns that any cost savings from closing the city jail would be offset by transporting inmates to and from the Butler or Warren county jails and that the increased travel times to those facilities will keep officers off the streets.

But after a jail analysis in 2017 noted “the overall condition of the Middletown City Jail from a maintenance perspective is fair to poor” and that there are more than $1.6 million in deferred maintenance projects, officials are continuing to look for solutions.

“The question to ask is this: Is it worth $1.3 million to the city to house 32 inmates at a time, when the violent and felony prisoners go to the county anyway?” said Middletown Police Chief Rodney Muterspaw. “That is the hard question we have to face.”

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Considering issues

The jail analysis in 2017 found that major issues included worn locking hardware, poor ventilation, electrical code violations, non-detention grade lighting, inadequate showers and obsolete fire alarm and suppression systems.

The study also noted the jail’s location in the basement of the city building severely hampers compliance with professional facility condition and correctional standards.

“Simply put, those that built this jail in the 1970s did not consider expansion at all. It was built underground, under a parking lot, next to two main city streets with heavy traffic,” Muterspaw said. “There is no way to comply with ongoing and changing state standards with what we have now. Obviously those state standards and legal precedents were not a part of jail procedures or policies when this one was built about 45 years ago.”

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In addition to capacity issues, there are also changes in jail medical policies that require officers to take intoxicated people to a hospital before booking them into the jail for liability reasons.

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Closing the jail is something the city’s police union would be opposed to. Officer Dennis Jordan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 36, said he could not see any cost savings in closing the jail.

In fact, he said the costs will go up in just transporting prisoners to the Butler County Jail or Warren County Jail in addition to waiting to book a suspect and if there is room in the jail. If not, the suspect will be issued a summons to appear in court. The time spent transporting and booking suspects into jail takes away from time patrolling the streets and neighborhoods.

Jordan said he’s already experienced arresting someone with warrants only to turn around and issue a summons because there’s no room at the city jail. He also said the union will be discussing the issue at an upcoming meeting. Jordan said nearly officer in the union is opposed to closing the jail because it will make it that much harder to protect and serve the community.

Former police chief David VanAresdale said the jail issue has been discussed many times over the years and the outcome is that it was cost-prohibitive to close the facility.

“I don’t believe in closing the jail. I think it’s a bad idea,” said former police chief Greg Schwarber. “If you close it, you’ll never reopen it. It has a deterrent effect because officers have a place lock up offenders.”

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Community input needed before any closure

Middletown Judge James Sherron said that the biggest hammer in his toolbox, the jail, will be gone should the city further reduce the number of inmates or close the jail. He said that also means that no non-violent misdemeanor offenders will go to jail.

“It would have a catastrophic impact on the community in terms of economics, the quality of life, and public safety,” Sherron said. “Losing jail space takes away any deterrents and we’re already seeing this in the jail population.”

Sherron said it also takes away from getting drug offenders into treatment. He if a drug suspect is arrested, taken to jail and appears in court, there are counselors are already embedded in the court docket and could quickly find a bed at a treatment center by staying in custody. If that same suspect was issued a summons, they may not appear for their court hearing and quite possibly re-offend and get re-arrested.

He asked, “what would be the percentage of drug offenders to get treatment if they know they won’t go to jail?”

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Council is undecided

“I believe there are opportunities to look at the jail for ways to save money and still deliver effective policing,” said Mayor Larry Mulligan. “Given the trends across the state and elsewhere, Middletown is unique in operating its own jail. This is an opportunity for the city to collaborate with the county and sheriff to deliver services.”

Mulligan said he believes that holding cells that are used in other areas, including West Chester, offer a lower cost option than our jail system.

“Council has been evaluating this for some time and I believe now is the time to take action,” he said. “The increase in state requirements also adds a compelling reason to move on in a different direction.”

Vice Mayor Talbott Moon said he would need a lot more information before making a such a decision.

“Costs to transport prisoners to the county, public safety concerns as well as the liabilities associated with State audit recommendations are among the many important factors to consider,” Moon said. “Closing a jail is a is not something we will do hastily and without considering all the relevant implications.”

Councilman Joe Mulligan said he’ll be looking for further analysis and recommendations from staff on how council can supply police with the tools that it will need to deliver the best results for the community.

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