City, Clark County talk about building new public safety building, jail

A new facility would be safer for staff, better focused on rehabilitation, supporters say.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Springfield and Clark County leaders are discussing construction of a new Clark County Jail and Public Safety building to replace a downtown location that for years has struggled to meet state standards.

Just recently, the jail, located at 120 N. Fountain Ave, was found in noncompliance with 16 standards, with officials reporting they could not comply with many of them unless and until a new building is constructed.

A feasibility study — at the request of Sheriff Deb Burchett — was initially performed by DLZ in 2018 and updated last summer. It created a report analyzing the attainability of building a new jail and public safety building, finding that a new jail would cost around $100 million now. In 2018, the study estimated a $35 million cost for renovations and a $55 million cost for a new facility, County Commissioner Melanie Flax Wilt said.

The increased estimate is in line with the average increase in home value, and the project would save the county money in the long run, Flax Wilt said.

“Each repair we do in there is essentially a Band-Aid at this point, but it’s a Band-Aid that costs a fortune,” Flax Wilt said.

The commissioner emphasized the new facility would not only be a jail, but also a public safety building, which can include mental health treatment, the sheriff’s office headquarters, office space and a place from which vehicles can be dispatched. The jail would be a large emphasis, though, and would be built in a way that would be safer for incarcerated individuals as well as deputies and corrections officers.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Why is a new jail necessary?

The jail was recently found in violation of 16 standards, leaving it a status jail — one that does not comply with either some essential jail standards or met less than 90% of important jail standards — until it is brought into compliance.

Violations include not having an operable toilet and shower for every 12 inmates, a lack of natural light to some cells, no rule prohibiting staff retaliation for inmate grievances, and a holding cell without sanitation facilities being used, according to a letter from ODRC assistant bureau administrator Scott Filicky to Burchett obtained through public records.

According to documents detailing violations, Clark County Jail overcrowding caused there to not be one operable toilet and shower per every 12 inmates. The sheriff’s office is in conversations “to seek approval of a new facility that would provide an” operable shower and toilet for each 12 inmates, according to the documents.

The holding cell without sanitation facilities that had been being used was ordered for use only temporarily “until suitable housing can be established,” according to a document.

A new facility would also allow the jail to provide one seat for each person in a cell incarcerated, provide all cells access to natural light and meet artificial lighting standards.

Where could the public safety building go?

Flax Wilt said that the county is working with Springfield city government to improve a brownfield — land abandoned or underused due to pollution from industrial use — located at Kenton and Burton streets that could serve as a good location for a newly built public safety building.

Springfield Mayor Rob Rue said the county will head the project, but the city will be involved. He said the city will work to figure out where to move the Springfield Police Division.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

The potential new location is still centrally located, and is made up of 16+ acres that could allow for a pod-style jail, Rue said.

Jail pods have master control areas in the center surrounded by cells and the areas where programs are held.

Now that a potential location has been identified, the county is now looking at funding options. Clark County is at the top of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s list for state jail funding, but because the county is considered “financially solvent and well managed,” Flax Wilt said ODRC would pay 25% of the cost.

The county is looking into additional funding options like borrowing, placing a levy on the ballot or other sources, Flax Wilt said.

The jail will not be “fancy,” Flax Wilt said; it needs to serve as a safe place for deputies and corrections officers to oversee those incarcerated, and a good place for true rehabilitation.

Flax Wilt said the current configuration requires corrections officers to do safety checks at a regular interval, while more modern public safety buildings have balconies and more open spaces to allow them to easier observe and house more inmates.

Greene County is building its own new jail, expected to be complete in 2025, with an almost $75 million price tag. The plan includes 250 beds and two additional “flex units,” totaling 24 beds that can be used for medical, overflow or other purposes.

‘Thinking about the future’

According to the Clark County study, jails are over capacity due to an emphasis on drunk-driving charges, mandatory domestic violence arrests, addiction, a lack of community-based resources, mandatory minimum sentencing practices and more. U.S. jails on average hold more than 600,000 people in a day, more than triple the jail population in 1985.

In order to reduce admissions into the county jail, the study recommended Clark County establish a comprehensive pretrial program, fund local detoxification services, increase the use of other sanctions, use a structured sanction policy to reduce the use of jail for probation violations and further develop diversion options for those experiencing mental illness.

Flax Wilt said the potential location of the new jail would be convenient, being near the future location of a mental health and drug treatment urgent care at 1911 E. High St. The urgent care is intended to provide immediate assistance to those in need with providers qualified to treat both mental illness and substance use disorders.

Flax Wilt said the study authors and the county are looking at trends, wanting to build something that is not only suitable for 2024, but for 2035 and beyond.

“We need to be really thinking about the future and building it for a future vision, and a big part of that is the mental health aspect and making sure that we have mental health and intake,” Flax Wilt said. “It takes some of the pressure off of law enforcement, being the mental health treatment center, because that’s not what they do. Rehabilitation and correction has not historically been focused on mental health, and that’s not necessarily what they’re always trained to do.”

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

The county is still in the planning stages of the jail, but completion would likely take about three years, according to the study. A jail rated for 432 beds is recommended over the current state-recommended capacity of 167 people.

Burchett did not respond to requests for comment.

Vacating the current downtown Springfield block in which the jail is located would free up space for economic development, with Rue calling the current site a “choice location.”

Flax Wilt agreed.

“It would free up space for some economic development down there where we’ve seen that area take off,” Flax Wilt said. “I have a vision that it can become something pretty special down there right now.”

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