Monday, January 21, 2002

Kenton jail strained by crowding

County's options dwindling

By By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — With the Kenton County Detention Center operating at 36 percent above capacity, officials are no closer to replacing it than when they began the county's latest search for a jail site in March 1998.

        Since Terry Carl took over as Kenton County Jailer three years ago this month, he says that much of his time has been devoted to problems associated with a crowded jail.

        Now that the funding mechanism for the new jail — a county payroll tax cap increase — faces a legal challenge that could take years to resolve, Mr. Carl said he must become increasingly inventive in devising stopgap solutions for a crowded jail.

        What the Kenton County jail staff is hoping to avoid is a costly federal consent decree that could threaten public safety.

        “Do you wait until the fire comes through the roof of your house to call the fire department?” asked Rodney Ballard, chief deputy of the Kenton County Detention Center. “Terry can't wait until the roof blows off the place to say, "We're overcrowded.' He has to address the situation now.”

        Since the early 1980s, more and more state prisoners have been housed in county jails, as state penitentiaries found themselves facing their own federal orders to reduce prisoner counts, said Harold Taylor, president of the Kentucky Jailers Association. In recent years, a public “get tough” attitude on crime has resulted in longer sentences, and prisoners not being paroled as rapidly as in the past, he said. Also, drug crimes, especially those involving methamphetamine, are on the rise, and a sluggish economy and rising unemployment have sparked more crime, Mr. Taylor said.

        Last month, with Kenton County's daily jail population averaging 410 — 10 inmates beyond what the county had budgeted for and 148 over the jail's 262-bed capacity — Mr. Carl and his staff began giving weekly jail population reports to the Kenton Fiscal Court. Mr. Carl plans to continue those reports until a new jail is built.

        “The numbers just keep going up,” said Kenton County Commissioner Barb Black. “While I've been willing to look at other sites, I have not wavered in my support for (the expansion of the current jail). The only thing undecided is how we're going to pay for it. If the payroll tax is not available (to fund the jail project) we're back to the drawing board. It's disappointing, but we'll keep moving forward.”

        The Kenton County Detention Center is so crowded that Mr. Carl sometimes gives nonviolent misdemeanor offenders credit for two days in jail for each day served.

        Since September, he has sent between 10 and 15 inmates a month to the Grant County Jail after they have been sentenced.

        Two months ago, Mr. Carl asked the U.S. government to start transferring its federal inmates out of his jail. While the number of federal inmates is now seven — down from the 50 housed a couple of months ago — the loss of federal inmates means that next year county officials will have to compensate for the loss of $245,000 in annual revenue they received to house those prisoners.

        Last fall, Mr. Carl converted an indoor recreation area into a dormitory that can hold up to 14 inmates. Deputies must escort each prisoner from the dorm for a shower, as the area has only a television, a toilet and telephones.

        “It's clear to me that the current jailer is doing a significantly better job managing the inadequate facility than the previous one did,” said Scott Greenwood, a local civil rights attorney. “However, the issue of jail overcrowding in Kenton County is not a new one. Since 1988, the political leadership has been well aware that it is an old, inadequate and dangerous facility.”

        Two years ago, Mr. Greenwood obtained a $350,000 settlement from Kenton County for the family of a diabetic prisoner who died sick, alone and naked under a previous jail administration.

        “There are no proceedings (for a federal consent decree) at this time, and we're working hard to avoid one,” Mr. Ballard said. “We don't want a judge to issue an order saying, "Here's your parameters. Here's what you're going to operate under.'”

        In Jefferson County, officials operated under a consent decree for 16 years, starting Oct. 2, 1985.

        For a decade, Joe Payne, then a lieutenant with the Jefferson County Metropolitan Department of Corrections, spent his work days tracking prisoner counts and compiling a daily list of who was eligible for release. That list had to be hand-delivered to the federal magistrate every weekday.

        “As time went on, we had a cap, not just for overall population, but for each floor and each dorm,” said Mr. Payne, now chief deputy of the Jefferson County Metropolitan Department of Corrections.

        Beyond that, there also were criteria for the types of prisoners who were eligible for release, Mr. Payne said.

        “In the beginning, we were releasing people who'd been sentenced on misdemeanors and prisoners with small bonds,” he said. “But by the end of the (consent decree), we were releasing people on higher and higher bonds. The longer it went on, the harder it was to find eligible people for release. The court forced us to widen the net and release prisoners who'd committed more serious offenses.”

        To make matters worse, some prisoners who were released early to comply with the federal decree committed burglaries soon after their release, and a couple were arrested for armed robberies.

        “It made the front page several times,” Mr. Payne said. “But we couldn't make the public understand that we didn't want to release these prisoners early.”

        Not only did the federal consent decree require Jefferson County corrections officials to add more staff to handle inmates' medical needs and deal with the increasingly complicated prisoner classification process, it also specified what publications the county had to make available to its inmates — everything from the local daily newspaper to Ebony magazine.

        Toward the end of the decree, federal officials were threatening to fine the county $100 a day for each inmate housed over the 823-prisoner cap, Mr. Payne said.

        “Legal Aid attorneys would tell us, "You're not releasing enough inmates.'” Mr. Payne recalled. “We would say, "The inmates we have aren't eligible for release.' But they'd threaten to arrest the county commissioners and the (Jefferson County judge-executive) if we didn't follow the court order and stay under the cap.” Ultimately, Jefferson County's crowding problem was solved when the county opened a new, larger jail in November 1999.

        In both Jefferson and Fayette counties, which faced its own federal consent decree in 1998 and 1999, fights between inmates increased with the crowded conditions, officials said. But lack of space and state classification requirements often made it difficult to separate prisoners with personality conflicts and keep predators out of the general population.

        “In some of our areas that were meant to house 14 to 18 people, we had as many as 35 to 40 people,” said Glenn Brown, the Fayette County jailer. “When inmates are squeezed into a space, tempers get short and fights occur.”

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