By JOY BROWN
Most people in jail want to get out. Amy Peters, who is out, is begging to get in.
But on a recent muggy Monday morning, the 45-year-old, sentenced to five days in jail in January 2013 for driving with a suspended license, was denied entry to the Hancock County jail because of overcrowding.
It was her 16th try to get in.
“All I want is to serve my time. I did the crime,” she said. “I just want to get it over with. It’s stalling me.”
Court documents show it is becoming much harder, especially for women, to serve time for crimes ranging from felony domestic violence to a misdemeanor charge of petty theft.
One Ohio criminal justice professor considers the extreme cases a human rights violation.
A Courier review of Hancock County public records found that, as of mid-June, another woman had been turned away 17 times, and a third had been turned away 18 times.
Monica Urdiales, 29, of Holgate, Henry County, has been trying to serve her four-day sentence for aggravated disorderly conduct for nearly two years.
Urdiales was convicted in August 2012, denied work-release instead of jail, and was turned away for the 17th time on June 9.
She was scheduled to serve her sentence 20 days later, but with no guarantee she would be admitted. She failed to show up and a bench warrant was issued for her arrest.
Betty Taylor, 62, of Findlay, was rejected for the 18th time in June. She is trying to serve 10 days for an October 2012 conviction for failing to stop after an accident. Her next attempt is scheduled for Monday.
Kevin Hamilton of Findlay has pleaded to Municipal Judge Robert Fry to serve his 25-day sentence for driving under suspension and not wearing a seat belt.
“I’ve been turned away again and I have no time off work,” he told Fry. “Please, I have to work…”
Court records from Jan. 1 through June 17 show 27 men and 45 women tallied 174 jail rejections, the vast majority because beds were lacking.
Twenty-six had been rejected three or more times since their conviction dates.
By comparison, in 2009, there were only 49 rejections, including six for women.
But, at this year’s pace, the jail will surpass last year’s rejection record of 278, and will deny more women than men for the first time.
The jail has 98 beds, including 18 beds for women.
This spring, jail Administrator Ryan Kidwell said, a cell block usually reserved for men was used for women temporarily.
Findlay Municipal Court Judge Jonathan Starn said a spike in crime last year, beginning in the spring and lasting through summer, is primarily to blame for the jail delays.
This year’s caseload is lower so far, he said, because arrests were down during the brutal winter. But he doesn’t expect it to remain that way.
Parole violators are exacerbating the jail’s overcrowding problem, Starn and others said. The community’s drug scourge, including an increase in heroin use, is also a factor.
Kidwell said it is “a crapshoot” for sentenced offenders to get into the jail.
Records show that some, like Urdiales, who have been issued bench warrants for not showing up, have been refused when they finally do appear.
There are no national or state statistics available of overcrowed jails refusing to take prisoners, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence.
Jail overcrowding has become chronic on Crawford Street, with the severity varying since it opened in 1989, according to a 2006 study commissioned by the Hancock County Community Corrections Board.
The jail, like others throughout the country, wasn’t built to accommodate many women.
The county’s population growth in the 1990s also wasn’t expected, nor were changes in sentencing rules that placed much of the burden of housing lower-degree felons on county jails instead of state prisons, Kidwell said.
From 2011 through 2013, the average daily inmate population at the Hancock jail was 92.
Kidwell said a dozen years ago, in response to state threats to fine the county because of high jail population numbers that the state said may be unsafe, the jail began limiting the number of convicted inmates serving sentences so there would be room for newly-arrested people.
Exceptions have been made, he said, but the county tries to keep eight beds for men and three for women available for newcomers.
Starn was surprised to learn of this year’s jail rejections.
“I did not know it was that high. I thought the high end was eight or nine” rejections, he said.
Starn said the extreme cases are “unacceptable.”
“We can’t have people turned away that many times. It’s bad for the court because our sentences aren’t getting enforced,” Starn said.
“And yes, they committed the criminal act and they have to suffer punishment for that. But somebody who is trying to do their sentence should be able to do their sentence and put it behind them,” he said.
Legal experts say there are no laws or precedents regarding lag time between conviction and incarceration.
“It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for them. I do understand what they’re going through,” said Hancock County Public Defender Paul Maekask.
“I will agree the situation is unfair, as I hope you will agree that life is not fair and we don’t live in a perfect world,” Maekask said.
Alana Van Gundy-Yoder, an assistant professor and criminal justice studies coordinator at Miami University, who holds a doctorate in sociology, said the issue could “be argued as an Eighth Amendment violation” for the “excessive and unnecessary” emotional and family toll it exacts upon convicts and their families.
Women are especially vulnerable to the overcrowding problem and its inequalities, she said.
“Because women have historically committed crimes at lower rates than men,” Van Gundy-Yoder said, “there has been a lack of space, attention and funding directed toward female offenders throughout the history of corrections.
“Sociologically, women are also more likely to be turned away because they are viewed as ‘less dangerous’ than men.
“The psychological and emotional differences as well as the family impact from awaiting an impending sentence will show strong gender differences as well,” she said.
“Women offenders are primarily single mothers that are the sole earner and have custody of their children. Incarcerating them or withholding a sentence will greatly impact their earning potential, emotions, their psyche and their children/families,” Van Gundy-Yoder said.
But she did not dismiss the impact that jail delays have on men, too.
“Yes, there are fewer beds for women, less space, and less locations to place them in. However, there are numerically more male inmates and overcrowding is just as bad,” she said.
The Hancock County jail and courts keep track of rejection totals. But the number of rejections in individual cases has gone largely unnoticed.
That should change, officials acknowledged.
In most cases, judges and others aren’t aware of multiple denials until convicted people file appeals for leniency and outline their plight.
Sheriff Michael Heldman said city and county workers discussed the problem in March. Municipal court workers in late May began monitoring jail rejections more closely, but the monitoring remains general.
“We’re keeping track of the number of turnaways and when they occur, not necessarily … particular cases,” Starn said.
Staff and resources are thin for individual tracking, said Starn and municipal court Administrator Dave Beach.
“…How much is it going to cost us to modify the case management software to track them?” Beach said. “And, of course, where is that money going to come from?”
Starn said, “We’re going to have to come up with a way that works for both sides to keep track of that. Obviously, the way we’ve been doing it isn’t going to continue to work.
“There’s probably a middle ground in there somewhere. I think it’s just going to require that we all sit down and look, from a practical standpoint, at how this is going to work when they show up in the lobby at the sheriff’s and they show up in Room 206 (municipal court office for rescheduling),” Starn said.
When rejections occur, the convicted person must reschedule a jail admittance date by the end of the following business day with Findlay Municipal Court. The next date must be within 30 days of the most recent rejection, which frequently means people average about one or two tries per month.
Beach said he has been talking with jail administrators about reducing extreme rejection rates and setting guidelines for when inmates should be housed in other county jails.
The Putnam County Jail housed up to 15 inmates from Hancock County for most days from 2004 through July 2007.
Kidwell said the arrangement ended because the economy and the 2007 flood sapped Hancock County’s budget, and because incarceration numbers dipped.
A new jail contract between Hancock County and Findlay, approved this week, calls for re-establishing the practice of transporting prisoners to other county jails when the Hancock County jail is overcrowded. The city will pay the cost of transporting its prisoners.
Findlay has agreed to pay for up to 500 out-of-county beds for its inmates each year.
Kidwell said “creative” sentencing has and is being used, but results have been mixed.
For instance, judges have urged people to serve their sentences at the city-operated work-release program, which allows people to serve their jail sentences at night while continuing to work.
But many choose not to participate. Reasons vary, but work-release participants have to pay a fee to stay there.
Last year, 231 took advantage of the work-release option, but 118, or about one-third of those eligible, did not.
Preparing to go to jail has become a routine for Peters.
Petite, with a gravelly smoker’s voice, Peters has been a server at area restaurants for years.
Before her jail date, she usually stays up all night, smoking and worrying, she said.
“What if I get in and start freaking out? What if I have a heart attack? What if someone grabs me in there because it’s overcrowded? What if someone is there from high school that didn’t like me?” she said.
“So it’s thinking about the possibilities. I worry about things before they happen. I do it all the time.”
Peters usually schedules her jail reporting times for 9 a.m. Once in the jail’s front lobby, she starts to sweat. Her pulse races.
“I go up, take a drink of water, and then I’m sitting there waiting, looking up at the (security) camera, waiting for them to come down. And when I hear that ‘ta-tink, ta-tink’ in that doorway I know they’re coming down to tell me, ‘Here’s your paper … We’re overcrowded.'”
She then tries to thank whoever drove her to the jail from Kenton.
“I take them out to breakfast. If they take me a long way, I pay for gas.”
Officials say there are no quick or easy solutions.
“I don’t foresee it getting any better,” Starn said. “Every study has said the (inmate) numbers are going to continue to grow.”
Those who work in the system agree more jail space is needed.
Beach said a 2006 study, indicating 137 more jail beds are needed, is being updated.
“From my perception, there isn’t anybody pointing fingers,” Beach said. “It’s a community problem that we all need to address.”
“Nobody caused it,” Starn said. “Nobody can fix it by themselves.”
Officials know that Hancock County residents do not have a history of supporting jail construction.
In the 1970s and 1980s, county residents didn’t want to pitch in to solve an overcrowding problem at the old county jail on Broadway. Four ballot issues were defeated before the county commissioners announced in 1986 that money would be borrowed to build a new jail.
More recently, other jail options have been examined.
A 2011 municipal court-sponsored study suggested building a jail for prisoners convicted of misdemeanors would cost more than $26 million.
Findlay is also considering an alternative sentencing center for nonviolent, lower-degree felons that would focus on drug and alcohol abuse treatment and, it is hoped, reduce recidivism.
Beach and Starn call the alternative sentencing center a “Band-Aid” approach, but one they think is necessary.
Amy Peters’ wait goes on.
Her latest jail denial defied Starn’s order, issued June 10, for the jail to accept her or transport her to another county jail.
“I’ve cried in front of them (corrections officers),” she said. “They know me. When I walk in, they look at me and hand me a paper and put their heads down more or less to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ It can drag you down.
“I’m tired. I’m tired. I’m so tired,” she said.
Peters is concerned about the burden on her family. She said her daughter worries about her, and her aunt is doing the best she can to help her acquire health insurance and get her back on needed medication.
“They’re busy with their lives. I don’t want to interfere with their lives,” she said.
“It’s not that I want to get out of this. I just want to make that clear. I just want to serve my time, or serve anything else, I don’t care. There are things this is stopping me from doing.”
Peters wants to move south, to Tennessee or Kentucky, she said, where she wants to restart her life in the mountains that she loves.
She doesn’t cry every time she reports to jail now.
“The last time I went there I laughed,” she said. “I’m laughing because it’s a joke to me anymore.”
• Findlay Municipal Court:
• Hancock County jail:
• Findlay Municipal Court Administrator Dave Beach’s Institute for Court Management research paper:
• U.S. Department of Justice Jail Inmates at Midyear 2013:
• National Institute of Corrections state statistics:
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