Portage authorities keeping an eye on jail

From staff and wire reports Published:

Portage County authorities are among many from across the state keeping an eye on Ohio's first privately operated county jail in Lisbon to see if it saves counties money. The $15 million jail, which opened Wednesday, is expected to save at least $1.4 million per year because the county does not pay salaries for jailers and other staff, said Columbiana County Commissioner Michael Halleck. The county has moved 10 prisoners from its old downtown lockup to the new jail in this northeastern Ohio village, about 30 miles south of Youngstown. County officials plan to move another 45 prisoners that the county is paying Medina and Morrow counties to house. The new jail will be leased and operated by CiviGenics of Milford, Mass. The county will rent bed space under a two-year agreement. Almost all of Ohio's sheriffs oppose privately operated jails, while county commissioners are waiting to see if they really save money. "We've been watching what's going on over there. Every county is under significant budget pressure. The legal system takes up more and more cost," said Portage County Commissioner Chuck Keiper. The Portage County justice system, including the sheriff's department, jail, court system and prosecutor's office, now takes up 60 percent of the county's $27 million general fund. The Portage County Justice Center on Infirmary Road in Shalersville opened in 1995 and can house up to 182 inmates. The multi-million dollar structure also is home to the Portage County Sheriff's Office, which previously was stationed in the Portage County Courthouse in Ravenna along with the old jail, which had the space to house only 54 inmates. "(The private county jail is) going to force people to take a look. It's going to force sheriffs to be as efficient as they can," Keiper said. Courtney Combs, Butler County commissioner and president of the state county commissioner's association, said he was not impressed with privately operated jails. "In Butler County, we've talked about it but don't consider it an option," he said. He cited difficulties, including escape problems, at privately operated jails in other states. Sheriffs ultimately retain responsibility for prisoners, even if a private company operates a county's jail, Combs said. CiviGenics is hoping success in Columbiana County will lead to more business in Ohio. The 2 1/2-year-old company operates several county jails in Colorado and has acquired other companies that deal with related problems, such as drug and alcohol counseling. "There are a few counties in Ohio with similar issues. This comes down to a dollars-and-cents issue," said Tom Rapone, CiviGenics' director of marketing and a former state prison commissioner in Massachusetts. The number of inmates in privately operated jails in the United States is expected to grow to 200,000 by the end of 1998, up from about 85,000 earlier this year, he said.

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