Citing unsafe working conditions, the Brown County Commissioners declared that effective Thursday, Nov. 12, the Brown County jail is closed.
At a special emergency meeting held in the commissioner’s office, Commissioners Barry Woodruff, Daryll Gray, and Tony Applegate discussed that a recent grievance filed by a Brown County Sheriff’s Office employee made keeping the jail open untenable. Attending the meeting was BCSO Sheriff Dwayne Wenninger, Chief Deputy Carl Smith, Lieutenant Larry Meyer, Corporal Austin Fulton, and Brown County Prosecutor Jessica Little.
As of the meeting on Thursday, the Brown County Adult Detention Center will be emptied, with inmates being sent to the Butler County Jail in Hamilton, at a cost of $60 per person. All incoming inmates will be booked in the Brown County jail and then transported to the Butler County Jail.
“We’re emptying the jail so we can get it fixed,” Gray said.
In addition, with the jail closed, all employees of the BCSO will be given layoff notices, and the county and BCSO administration has 21 days, per their contract with the county, to decide whether to rescind the layoff notices of certain employees.
The commissioners, prosecutor, and BCSO administration in attendance all agreed that the best-case scenario is that the County Risk Sharing Authority and the Fraternal Order of Police approve of the BCSO keeping their four holding cells open for inmates to stay for court hearings or if they’ve been booked overnight after being arrested. The holding cells use a lock and key mechanism for the door locks, as opposed to a mechanically-powered mechanism.
But if the two organizations can’t both agree on allowing the Brown County jail holding cells to remain open, the new status quo will remain intact.
While the jail is empty, the commissioners said the plan is to bring in a jail door manufacturing company to fix the broken jail doors. The commissioners confirmed they have been in touch with three companies, all from out of state, and that one had already visited and submitted an estimate for the repairs.
The commissioners also revealed they anticipate the repair work could take upwards of four months to complete.
While Commissioner Tony Applegate did not want to release the amount of the estimate, he agreed it’s likely that both the roughly $180,000 per month cost for sending prisoners to Butler County and the possible $500,000-$1,000,000 cost tag on the jail door repairs, the county is looking at spending well over $1 million on fixing a short-term problem.
The commissioners and BCSO administration did discuss the need for a new jail at the meeting, but their main focus was on solving the short-term issue of malfunctioning jail doors.
The decision to close the jail comes following a grievance report filed on Oct. 22 by BCSO Corrections Corporal Dana McGuffey. In her report, which was acquired by The News Democrat, McGuffey alleges that on Oct. 21 at approximately 5:15 p.m., a fight broke out between two male inmates. Multiple corrections officers responded to the scene and were able to break up the fight. But when the responding officers had the situation under control and turned to leave, they saw 10 to 15 inmates standing in the halls between the officers and the block door.
In a separate incident report, the report claims that the fight started between two inmates arguing with one another. It’s not clear who wrote the incident report but the writer claims they “didn’t feel safe having inmates between me and the main door,” due to the malfunctioning locks on doors.
According to McGuffey, “this poses a major safety/security issue.”
Commissioners met in an emergency special session, Oct. 22, and approved Smith’s request to send all of Brown County’s female inmates to the Butler County Jail, allowing some of the male inmates to be moved into the female blocks, where the door locking mechanisms work.
According to a letter from McGuffey sent to Wenninger, Smith, and the commissioners on Oct. 22, there are as many as 15 cell doors that are malfunctioning. McGuffey noted that in the north block, four doors will not close and two doors will not lock.
In the south block, three doors will not close and two doors will not open from the door panel, and have to be kicked open and pushed close. In the female block, McGuffey writes that five doors will not close or latch properly, including the main vestibule door.
In that letter, McGuffey notes that the malfunctioning jail doors have been “an ongoing issue” and that she would “not want to face a mother of father, husband or wife, or children and tell them that I along with county administration was aware of the security and safety issues and chose to ignore them and put officers lives at risk.”
At the meeting on Nov. 12, Woodruff relayed those concerns, and said he and the commissioners could not ignore an unsafe situation and put their employees in danger.
“We tried to look and see if we could keep the female side open but CORSA and (county attorney) Ben Allbright said it does not do away with a grievance that said you have an unsafe facility,” Woodruff said.
“I am not willing to be a commissioner if I know a facility is unsafe and I don’t radically respond to that safety issue, I don’t want anybody taking what (my wife) Karen and I have worked 45 years to get. I will not allow that to happen. Being pushed into this situation and getting all the legal advice we could get, this is why we’re here.”
As has been reported previously, the Brown County jail was constructed in 1980 with enough room for 38 people. But as of today, the jail routinely houses anywhere from 70 to 80 inmates. The jail doors have long been an issue for BCSO officers and deputies, and according to Smith, the company that built the current jail doors went bankrupt in 1983.
The county has long contracted out to mechanics and engineers to build new parts for the jail doors since the original company ran out of spare parts soon after going under.
“I am very pleased that we are getting to the point where this is going to be taken care of,” Smith said. “I don’t have to worry about our people back there getting hurt because a door won’t lock.”
With the entire jail population being shipped to Butler County, the discussion at the meeting turned to acquiring a new transport van for the BCSO to use to bring inmates back and forth, depending on when they need to appear in court.
Wenninger said he currently had enough money in his budget to purchase another van, though he noted that it was up to the commissioners to appropriate the funds.
One of the unfortunate outcomes of this decision is that the BCSO is going to have to cut staff. Wenninger and Smith weighed cutting two or three part-time staff members but they didn’t come to a consensus of who would be laid off to save on costs at the meeting.
It’s unclear as well whether those laid off would be re-hired when and if the jail is re-opened.
Fulton floated a potential serious issue during the meeting, claiming that according to state law if the jail is not being used or worked on within a 30-day period, the jail would have to be brought up to full Ohio minimum jail standards, which it currently falls woefully short of due to the overcrowding.
Fulton said the current facility would likely never reach the current minimum standards due to the large inmate population.
Woodruff reiterated to a reporter at the meeting that should a new jail be built, construction would take at least two years, meaning that the county still needs to fix its short-term jail door issue now and worry about constructing a new jail later.
Woodruff also said that a levy would have to be approved to help pay the costs of building a new jail facility, and he hoped the public would see the need for it and potentially approve that one day.
Reach Daniel Karell at 937-378-6161. Follow him on Twitter @GNDKarell