Even though crime rates continue to fall, most Ohio counties are struggling with overcrowded jails. 20 counties are now under federal court orders to address the problem. Some counties have opted for expensive new jails, but others have been more innovative. For example, this week Butler County lawmen put up a military tent to hold inmates that couldn't fit inside their jail. But one rural county southwest of Akron has taken a unique approach. The Wayne County Sheriff's department recently opened a minimum security facility in downtown Wooster that charges its prisoners $20 per night. 90.3's Ley Garnett reports that some are calling it "the pay to stay jail."
Ley Garnett- From the outside this building gives no indication that it's holding inmates inside. It's a modest brown brick structure. There's no sign on the outside, no bars on the windows, no razor wire fence surrounding it. The only embellishment is an American flag that flies on top. And if it looks like a stripped down supermarket that's because indeed it was once a grocery store. When Sheriff Tom Maurer learned that the building was for sale, he started sizing up its potential to solve his jail space problem.
Tom Maurer- It's a four block wall with one entrance, when we came here, and a back door -- perfect for security.
LG- The Sheriff's department bought the old supermarket building for slightly less than the $300,000 it paid last year to other counties just to house its excess inmates. Prisoners from the old jail provided free labor to help convert the building as grocery shelves made way for dormitory style housing. Sheriff Maurer says the new facility was deliberately designed to distinguish it from the old county jail.
TM- This is a very menial, minimum program of a quote 'detention facility.' There's a lot of freedom here, a lot of openness. The door is always open for someone to leave, but if they leave they face a problem with the courts.
LG- There's a price for that freedom at this jail. The cost is $20 a day, not in fines, but in rent and board. The inmates actually have to pay for the privilege of being incarcerated at this facility. It's their option. They can stay in the old jail for free.
The doors are rarely bolted at the Wayne County Discipline and Rehabilitation Center, even overnight. Only one Deputy is on duty during the day and he wears a dress shirt and tie.
Doug Johnson- It's a non offensive dress of the day.
LG- Nor does Deputy Doug Johnson wear a gun holster.
DJ- Doesn't look like a jail, does it? Walk in there, there's a couple of guys sleeping.
LG- Two inmates sleep after they've worked their night jobs. The county provides work transportation and every one here has a job. If they don't and want to stay in this facility, the county sends them to a private employment office. The floors sparkle with a fresh coat of wax. The dining area doubles as a TV and library room. Only 15 inmates are here on this day, but the Sheriff says it will eventually hold 60 including up to 20 women in a secondary dorm. Inmate Jerry Claybaugh spent the first eight months of his sentence for drunken driving, in the main jail. He says there's no comparison to the new facility.
Jerry Claybaugh- A lot of difference. Up there we have a two inch piece of foam rubber to lay on and a steel plate and a blanket. Down here we've got some nice beds and we're not locked up - We don't have any lockup here. In fact these doors are all unlocked.
LG- Claybaugh works on the county's brush clearing crew to earn his rent. He also gets out three times a week to attend alcohol anonymous meetings. Most of these inmates committed an alcohol related offense. Claybaugh says he's made some new friends here, something that never happened at the old jail.
(to JC) Is it kind of more like having a roommate than an inmate?
JC- Yes, it's more of a roommate than inmate here. Actually we don't consider ourselves inmates. We are technically, we are in jail. This is a jail. There is zero tolerance down here for all the rules. If you break a rule, that's it. You go back to jail. Your time starts back over again. Everybody understands this.
LG- Sheriff Tom Maurer says the neighborhood near this correction center opposed their program at first, but now he says they've been able to blend into the community.
TM- The residents of Wooster and this community still don't know we're open, and that's the way we like it. People stay here, they come and go to work, they come and go to their counseling programs and we're knocking on wood every day, we have not had a problem here.
LG- Only a few years ago, drunken driving offenders didn't face jail time. State law now mandates a ten day sentence for second offenders. Jails today also handle repeat drug offenders and mental patients that they never had to deal with before. The exploding jail populations in Ohio and across the country are a big concern for Steve Ingley who's executive director of the American Jail Association. Ingley says not enough attention is paid to the long term effects of mandatory sentencing for certain crimes.
Steve Ingley- The question is: Should a person who is requiring health care in this country be criminalized? You know, should they be going through the criminal justice system? Because there isn't enough resources at the community-state level, whatever, to provide care and treatment for these people.
LG- That seems to be the case in Wooster as well. Even though this unique corrections center will relieve immediate pressure for a new jail, Sheriff Maurer says they'll have to find the money eventually. Within five years Wayne County Commissioners plan to build a new municipal court that will probably include a new jail as well. For Infohio, I'm Ley Garnett in Wooster.