Special master to rectify operations, conditions
The sheriff said the bottom line is 'a lack of funding.'
YOUNGSTOWN -- In a searing 44-page opinion, a federal judge found nearly every aspect of the Mahoning County jail to be cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of inmates' constitutional rights.
U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd Jr. said Thursday too few and untrained guards were the root of the problems, causing inmates to be confined in their cells for prolonged periods and resulting in fights and disrupting educational and religious programs, visitation, recreation, counseling and even showering.
Agreeing with two Akron lawyers who filed a class action lawsuit on the inmates' behalf, the judge ordered that a special master be appointed to supervise spending and remedy crowded and unsafe conditions.
Judge Dowd wants both sides -- lawyers for Mahoning County commissioners and the inmates' lawyers -- to each suggest five people to serve as special master by March 21. Each side has until March 28 to remove three names from the opposing party's list.
The judge, who will pick the special master, said one is needed because of the complex nature of the task to fix what's wrong. The person chosen will recommend solutions to the judge.
Mahoning County must pay for the special master as well as lawyers' fees and the cost of the trial transcript. The costs will be tallied later.
The judge, in a terse condemnation, said there is no indication that commissioners or voters intend to take action to provide sufficient funds to operate the jail and other sheriff's department activities. Voters twice rejected a half-cent sales tax that generates roughly $14 million annually, and commissioners decided to put it on the ballot again, not impose it.
Commissioners allocated Sheriff Randall A. Wellington a $7.5 million budget this year -- he had wanted $16.9 million. Of 230 employees, 50 deputies will be laid off March 27 and an additional 90 deputies soon after, the sheriff said Thursday.
"The bottom line is a lack of funding," Wellington said, reacting to Judge Dowd's decision. "I've had no relief."
Wellington said he's confident the special master will determine the dilemma is a lack of funding. "I don't have the money to operate this place."
Judge Dowd said that, in February 2003, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction granted Wellington a variance that allowed him to add bunks to alleviate overcrowding -- if he operated the jail pods as dorms, which meant leaving cell doors open to allow inmates 24-hour access to the day room. The judge said the sheriff violated the state-mandated variance by adding more bunks than allowed and by keeping inmates locked in their cells every night and many other times during the day.
As a result of the variance, the main jail capacity jumped from 432 to 564. The misdemeanant jail can house 96 sentenced inmates.
There are about 630 inmates in the jails now, roughly 80 of whom are federal detainees at the main jail. Within the past year, the jails' population hovered around 800.
Judge Dowd said the population level at the main jail greatly exceeds the approved capacity. He said that while the number of inmates increased, the number of guards decreased.
The judge said that, although the sheriff contended at trial that 173 deputies were assigned to the jail, that number is not correct because many are sent to the juvenile and county courts, used for federal transport and sent to perform other duties.
Judge Dowd said the state variance was also granted with the understanding that the sheriff eliminate the housing of federal inmates.
"The defendants have not removed federal inmates from the facility as required by the variance," Judge Dowd wrote. "Even as they were applying for and implementing the variance, the defendants were negotiating with the U.S. Marshals Service to house additional federal inmates."
Wellington said that, two years ago, the budget commissioners -- Treasurer John Reardon, Prosecutor Paul J. Gains and Auditor George Tablack -- encouraged him to keep the federal inmates because the county is paid nearly $69 per inmate per day by the marshals service. The sheriff said he had no choice but to keep federal inmates because when he laid off deputies in March 2003 he went to the judges to seek the release of local inmates and got "no relief."
Wellington, in a letter this week, has asked all common pleas, county and municipal judges to release inmates and not send more. He wants to meet with the judges to discuss alternative sentences or transferring inmates to other county jails.
The sheriff said the housing of federal inmates is moot now, based on Judge Dowd's decision.
The judge pointed out that commissioners did not resolve to allow the sheriff to keep money earned from the federal inmate contract. The money, which the sheriff said brings in $3 million annually, currently goes into the general fund.
Last week, U.S. Marshal Peter J. Elliott announced his desire to consolidate remaining federal inmates in his district, about 375 held at county jails, at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, a private prison on Hubbard Road. He toured the prison and said it meets his needs.
Elliott, reached Thursday, said he wanted to review Judge Dowd's decision before commenting on the state variance that expected Wellington to eliminate the housing of federal inmates.