Jail at center of death investigation routinely overcapacity

The Tri-County Regional Jail exceeded its state-approved capacity on April 5, the night inmates reportedly assaulted a 39-year-old Marysville man who later died.

Jail and sheriff’s office leaders have declined to discuss the death of the prisoner, David Piersol, citing the ongoing investigation, and didn’t answer questions about if overcrowding contributed to the assault.

Records show the jail housed 181 inmates the night of April 5. It should only have 160, according to the state.

Also, a state inspection report obtained by the Springfield News-Sun shows that the jail added extra beds without approval that made it possible for it to house more than its recommended capacity.

The family of David Piersol has also raised concern over whether he received timely medical treatment following the attack, alleging he was airlifted to Miami Valley Hospital only after he had a seizure and fell from his bunk later that morning.

Investigators have released little information about the assault, including how many people were involved.

The jail’s director declined to comment on Piersol’s death or if the jail population was a factor, but said overcrowding is minimal now compared to previous years.

“We’re more than adequately staffed,” said Scott Springhetti, jail executive director.

With a state-recommended capacity of 160 inmates — 125 men and 35 women — the jail is required to have seven guards on duty at all times.

“Seven is the minimum, but typically there are eight to 10,” Springhetti said.

No charges yet

The jail houses arrested individuals from Champaign, Union and Madison counties and is governed by a board of commissioners, one from each county.

While the investigation into Piersol’s death continues, Champaign County Sheriff Matt Melvin said he couldn’t discuss specifics of the assault.

An incident report says deputies were called to the jail about 6:30 a.m. to investigate an assault that occurred shortly after 2 a.m., but gives no other details. It was previously reported that Piersol’s injuries occurred around 4 a.m.

The report lists eight other inmates as witnesses to the incident. Four are still incarcerated at the jail, three have been released and one is now serving a three-year sentence at the North Central Correctional Institution in Marion.

No charges have been filed in connection with the assault.

Piersol died at Miami Valley Hospital on April 11. His cause and manner of death are still listed as pending, according to the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office. Deputies with the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office previously said he suffered serious head trauma during the assault.

‘Death sentence’

Piersol’s sister, Gery Martin, lives in Virginia and said she was told by a jail officer that he was held down by five or six individuals while one of them beat him. The officer told her the fight was broken up after 30 seconds and her brother went to bed.

She was told later that morning he allegedly fell from his bunk, possibly as a result of a seizure, striking his head on the corner of a piece of furniture.

Recordings from 9-1-1 calls obtained late last week indicate the jail called for an ambulance at 3:43 a.m.

“We need a squad here. A guy fell off a top rack in work release and he is seizing. He has a head injury, a pretty big knot and possible bleeding,” a jail guard tells the dispatcher. There is no mention of a fight on the recording.

At 3:59 a.m., a county dispatcher called CareFlight and asked for a helicopter to meet the ambulance at Mechanicsburg High School to fly Piersol to Miami Valley Hospital.

If he’d gotten medical treatment before going to bed, Martin wonders if her brother’s prognosis could have been different. She said Piersol also suffered a head injury in a serious car crash last year and questioned if jail staffers had that medical history at their disposal.

Family members saw Piersol at Miami Valley Hospital while he remained in a coma. Martin said his face was swollen and bruised and a drain had been inserted to relieve pressure in his brain.

“It’s definitely not a humane way to go,” Martin said.

Both Springhetti and the sheriff’s office declined to comment on Martin’s account of events.

Piersol was in the jail awaiting trial for charges including rape, gross sexual imposition and sexual battery. Those charges stemmed from an incident last October involving a 3-year-old girl.

“It was terrible what he did,” his sister said. “But there was not a death sentence going to be given to him.”

Piersol was a father of four. His three youngest children are currently in foster care. If he’d been able serve his time, Martin said she believes her brother would have been able to provide for his children down the road.

Piersol had struggled with alcohol, pain pills and pornography addictions, she said. He was reportedly attending AA meetings in jail.

“You need to tell them what you’ve done. You need to tell them you need help,” she remembered telling her brother after his was arrested in February.

Extra beds not removed

The News-Sun investigation discovered that the jail hasn’t removed extra beds, a change that was called for in the most recent inspection by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

“Information obtained on the date of the jail inspection evidenced that additional beds were added throughout the jail without Division approval,” the 2013 inspection report states. “The administration must remove the additional beds to recommended capacity figures to meet compliance with state law.”

The state requires jails to develop action plans to correct problems after inspections. ODRC spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said the department recently added staff members to better follow up on action plan compliance.

The extra beds at Tri-County bring the number of inmates who can be housed in the jail to more than 200. When the jail was inspected on Aug. 22, it had 170 individuals incarcerated there. The night that Piersol was assaulted, 181 inmates were housed at the jail, including 128 men and 53 women.

“The beds have not been removed, but they are only used in overcrowding situations,” Springhetti said.

Small improvements

The jail averages more than 160 inmates, Springhetti said, but the overcrowding problem has lessened as judges turn to diversionary alternatives such as electronic home monitoring.

The number of inmates housed in the jail between January and April this year averaged 163 per day. That’s down from an average of 164 per day in 2013 and 170 per day in 2012.

“Every jail in Ohio is overcrowded,” said Champaign County Commissioner Bob Corbett, who serves on the jail commission as well. “We’re making an honest effort to do what we can.”

The inmate population at Tri-County ballooned to 190 individuals at times a couple of years ago, he said.

“It’s much better than it used to be,” Corbett said. “There has been a genuine effort to keep the population down.”

The increase in female inmates over the past few years prompted the jail to convert a male housing unit to hold women instead.

“The drug problem has obviously hit the jails hard. And things that accompany the drug problem, including thefts,” Springhetti said.

When it reaches capacity, jail administrators reach out to judges to review cases and allow those accused of non-violent offenses to be placed on home detention or other jail-diversion programs. Those efforts have helped keep incarceration rates down, Springhetti said.

The inmate population listed on the jail’s online roster at MiamiValleyJails.org includes individuals in two electronic monitoring programs the jail oversees.

For example, on May 16 the website listed 170 inmates, but Springhetti said the actual number of individuals housed in the jail that day was 152, with the remaining 18 on home monitoring.

Dorm houses 20 inmates

Piersol was assaulted in a general housing unit of the jail described by Springhetti as an open dormitory.

The dorm isn’t under direct supervision by jail staff and housed 20 inmates the night of the attack.

The only area of the jail that is directly supervised is a 60-bed male unit, Springhetti said. The rest are monitored via camera and can be seen from the control center.

A guard can see a fight on a camera feed and quickly respond. But Springhetti said, “There is always the potential that it could go unseen.”

Officers are required to check unsupervised areas no more than one hour apart at random intervals, but in the 2013 report, state inspectors noted that jail logs didn’t show those checks completed consistently.

That’s an issue that has been addressed since the inspection, Springhetti said.

The jail hasn’t tracked whether fights occur more in direct-supervision areas or unsupervised dorms.

The News-Sun requested all inmate-on-inmate incident reports from 2013 and 2014 to examine that question. The jail incident report on Piersol’s assault wasn’t released.

The other reports show that the April 5 incident was the seventh of the year and 32 total inmate-on-inmate altercations occurred in 2013.

Some reports didn’t indicate an exact location in the jail where the fight occurred. Ten incidents occurred each in the areas referred to as the male dorm or pod and the work release pod. Six incidents were listed as occurring in the cell areas called Max Pod or Medical Pod. The majority of incidents occurred in bathrooms where there are no cameras.

“Those could range from a verbal altercation to a physical assault,” Springhetti said. He couldn’t recall any other recent incidents that led to an inmate being hospitalized.

Most of the incident reports documented that a nurse was called after a fight along with Mechanicsburg police or the sheriff’s department in some cases. The majority of inmates involved in those incidents refused medical treatment.

Open dorms criticized

“Overcrowding is a significant factor in increased violence,” said Chris Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union Ohio chapter. “It also goes hand-in-hand with understaffing.”

The ACLU advocates for prisoner rights and has reported that overcrowded jails and prisons can lead to violence, as well as spread disease.

“(Judges) are sending too many people to these facilities. They aren’t asking for enough diversionary options,” Link said.

Open dormitory settings, conceived as a cost-cutting measure in the construction of new jails, have been a point of contention for jail watchdogs.

“What we’ve heard from prison guards is that these open dorms pose such a problem that they are afraid of them,” Link said.

At Tri-County, cameras and guards in the command center can see activity in the open dormitories and Springhetti said there is no indication that they are more or less dangerous than other areas of the jail.

“That was a state recommendation at the time we built the jail,” Corbett said of the combination of dorms and cell blocks that make up the jail. He’s never heard anyone fault that housing style for safety reasons.

Martin said she expressed concern about her brother’s safety in the open environment to jail staff members, but was told he wouldn’t be isolated because he hadn’t been convicted.

Expansion not in budget

The Tri-County Jail is only 14 years old. At that time, the state paid to build a facility that would be shared between three counties, commissioner Corbett said.

Some advisers told the jail commissioners then that they wouldn’t be able to fill the jail at its current size, he said.

When overcrowding became a pressing problem a few years ago, administrators began discussing the need for expansion in board meetings.

“It was a bad fiscal time,” Springhetti said. “We continue to mention it just about every chance we get.”

An expansion would be expensive, Corbett said, and state funds are no longer available.

“This is not a new problem, it is just a growing problem,” he said.

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