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State makes surprise jail inspection

The annual state inspection of the county jail came 13 days earlier than Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless expected — and unannounced.

And for the first time representatives from the state fire marshal’s office joined inspectors from the corrections department when they came to the jail this past Thursday and Friday.

“It was a surprise,” Lawless said. “(The fire marshal) found some minor violations. Nothing major. I don’t have a report. But there are things we can fix.”

What Lawless doesn’t expect to be a surprise is the facility won’t once again get a passing score.

For several years the jail has repeatedly failed state corrections inspections from a variety of violations including inadequate lighting and lack of state-mandated square-footage per inmate. Because of that the state has said the facility should only house 27 prisoners.

Typically daily census can run from the 70s to 90s. To alleviate the overcrowding the state offered the county a 100-bed unit in the now closed Ohio River Valley Juvenile Correctional Facility in Scioto County.

At first the county commissioners OK’d the move. But earlier this month two commissioners said there was no money to take the state up on its offer.

To reduce the daily census Lawless has been sending more inmates to out of the county jails at an average cost of $60 a day, plus wages for two deputies to transport and travel costs.

“In an effort to try to make this as safe as I can and it appears we are not getting the ORV facility, I have to make other arrangements to get these numbers down,” Lawless said. “That will add to the cost of out-of-county housing.”

On Thursday and Friday there were 43 inmates at the Fifth Street facility, 23 at Morrow County and four in Scioto County.

Morrow is a six-hour round trip, plus deputies must stay while prisoners are processed.

“It can easily be an eight-hour day,” Lawless said. “We had a couple of inmates due for court this morning. You bring back two then get the list from the court. That will put deputies on the road every day of a week. That will cause overtime that you don’t schedule and budget.”

Another reason for the expected inspection failure is the county is in the process of updating policies that the state recently imposed.

“The standards changed,” he said. “This is the first time in 20 years.”

An ad hoc committee focusing on building a new jail set a timetable for a facility to be opened in 2020. However, it has not met in months.

Another committee was set up to determine if there were support for a levy to finance building a jail. It disbanded when members determined the community would not vote for the levy.

County officials have feared the state will shut down the jail if it keeps failing inspections. For that to happen the state would have to file a lawsuit in the Lawrence County Common Pleas Court with a local judge making the ruling.

However, the state fire marshal can shut down the facility immediately on the grounds it is unsafe.

“We will fail standards that we can never meet without building a new jail or make major renovations,” Lawless said. “In the past we rarely failed on policies, but the policies changed at the first of the year and we are still in the process of updating.”