ATHENS — The warden of a regional jail in southeast Ohio says overcrowding of female inmates is becoming an increasing problem there and at other county and regional jails around the state.
There are 32 beds available for women at the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail in Nelsonville and — often — they are all occupied, warden Jeremy Tolson told The Athens Messenger.
Tolson said the overcrowding is “kind of a new trend,” occurring statewide.
Various factors have contributed to the overcrowding, including a state legislative change in 2011, according to some jail officials. That change enabled fifth- and fourth-degree felons to be incarcerated in county jails.
Robert Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association, said the change was seen as a way to save the state money and reduce its prison population. It gave judges more flexibility to put nonviolent felons in local control settings such as halfway houses or community-based correction facilities, he said.
“But that can put a burden on local jails,” Cornwell said. “Many of the jails that were constructed in the last 20 years didn’t envision this increase in the female inmate population.”
He said another factor contributing to overcrowding is that more women are being arrested on drug-related charges considered nonviolent offenses.
“They stay at the local jail when they are arrested, and if they are put on a local control program and violate that, they go back to jail,” he said. “It can be like a revolving door.”
In the regional jail in Nelsonville, 185 of the 226 inmate beds are designated for its member counties. Those include the counties of Athens, Hocking, Morgan, Perry and Vinton. The remaining beds are used for overflow.
There were only about 200 inmates at the regional jail as of Jan. 23, but all of the beds for women were filled.
Athens County has the most beds at the regional jail, with 70 for men and six for women. But with the overflow beds for female inmates full, one woman recently arrested had to be jailed in Washington County, Athens County Sheriff Patrick Kelly said.
If inmates are arrested and the jail doesn’t have available beds, the county making the arrests pays to house them in a different jail, typically for a higher cost.
Kelly said two other women recently arrested for nonviolent offenses had to be released pending further court dates because there was no room at the jail.
“I wish I had a place to put them but I have to look at what’s cost-effective for our county too,” Kelly said.
The number of male inmates has also risen, with warrant round-ups or raids contributing to the increase, according to Tolson.
Cornwell said the sheriffs’ association is concerned about the overcrowding, and its community corrections committee has been monitoring the situation. Any recommendations for solving the problem would be made to the association’s board of directors, which would then work with legislators and state corrections officials to try to begin to solve some of the problems.