A COT IS set up at the Hancock County jail recently because of overcrowding. The jail, designed to hold 98 prisoners, has seen numbers as high as 140 last month. Excess prisoners are taken to neighboring county jails. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

By EILEEN MCCLORY
STAFF WRITER

Projections by the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office show 160 inmates could be in jail on a single day by the end of 2018, if current trends continue.

Jail numbers reached as high as 140 inmates in a single day in April.

The Hancock County jail is designed to hold 98 prisoners, so excess prisoners are taken to jails in Putnam, Wood and Van Wert counties. Hancock County spent $386,080 on this outside housing in 2017, according to numbers from the sheriff’s office.

The estimated cost for transportation to other county jails in 2017 was $21,165, according to the sheriff’s office.

It costs $121.30 for a transport round trip to Putnam County, $206.88 for a round trip to Van Wert and $103.73 for a round trip to the Wood County jail, said Lt. Joseph Hartman, operations lieutenant at the jail. Those numbers cover mileage costs and the deputy’s wage.

Another county’s jail may have to be added soon, due to demand, Hancock County Sheriff Mike Heldman said.

But transporting prisoners to other counties leads to the possibility of escape, Hartman said.

Several safety measures are in place when deputies transport prisoners. For example, only the sheriff’s office staff knows when transports will occur, and inmates can’t make calls around the time of their transport, Hartman said.

But transports are less secure than staying inside the jail.

“We’re pretty secure here, but once (prisoners) leave the secure perimeter that’s their best opportunity to do something,” Hartman said.

Hancock County has been contracting with other jails consistently since the fall of 2016, Sheriff Heldman said.

While contracts with other jails can relieve the jail’s overcrowding, other jails don’t accept just any inmates, Hartman said. Some will only accept people who have been arrested for misdemeanors, or they won’t accept inmates with particular medical problems.

Even with the additional room available at other jails, there are times when extra space is required at the Hancock County jail. When that happens, mattresses can be put down in places meant for daytime activities.

Female inmates can cause a particular headache for jailers.

The Hancock County jail was built to hold up to 18 women, Hartman said. About 24 women were in the jail one recent day. The additional women were held in a former male cellblock that has been converted to a female cellblock.

Heldman, who worked in the jail in 1991, said eight female prisoners was considered a lot at that time.

The opiate crisis has meant more women are being picked up for prostitution and drug possession, among other crimes, Heldman said, which has helped drive the increase in female inmates.

Higher inmate numbers have caused problems for jail staff. Everyday tasks, from laundry to paperwork to time spent booking people into the jail, have increased and take more time, Hartman said.

“It’s difficult to get to everyone who needs help with reentry,” said Sara Wagner, a social worker who works at the jail. Wagner helps prisoners who are reentering society, in the hope they will not offend again.

Hancock County appropriated about $3.6 million in 2017 to run the jail, according to the county auditor’s office website. That’s about $300,000 more than it cost to run the jail in 2015.

The average daily population was 118 in 2017, compared with 101 in 2015, according to the sheriff’s office.

Heldman said the lack of space means he will continue to look into a jail expansion. A ballot issue that would have funded a jail expansion was defeated by voters last November.

“We do need more space,” Heldman said.

While no expansion is currently underway, $1.5 million in jail repairs are expected to be completed by May 2019, Heldman said.

McClory: 419-427-8497
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Twitter: @CourierEileen

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