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RAVENNA -- Portage County commissioners expressed interest last week in moving forward with the plan to construct a 132-bed pod to relieve overcrowding at the Portage County Jail in Shalersville.
The estimated cost of a new pod, plus renovations to the existing facility and the hiring of as many as five new corrections officers to staff it, is $13 million. The money will come from a five-year, 0.25 percent sales tax imposed in 2015 and designated by commissioners for the jail.
The county's inmate population has exploded in recent years, thanks mostly to the illegal drug trade.
"Personally, I think we need a new pod," said Commissioner Vicki Kline, whose opinion was echoed by Commissioner Sabrina Christian-Bennett. Though "wary" of its cost, Commissioner Maureen Frederick said she was "reluctantly" in favor of the plan. "There's no question we need increased capacity," she said.
The plan adds 149 beds, increasing jail capacity from 218 to 367. It boosts female inmate capacity from 97 to 132 and adds 10 additional beds for inmates with mental health issues, medical needs or behavioral problems who require "constant supervision," Portage County Sheriff David Doak said.
He said the cost will not be firm until the architects at Wachtel & McAnally of Newark finish their drawings and a contractor is hired. Architects Garry McAnally and Kent Staker met Wednesday with Doak and his staff before meeting with commissioners, county officials and members of the county Sales and Use Tax subcommittee.
McAnally, whose firm specializes in designing correctional facilities, said he has integrated central control systems with camera surveillance and sight lines in new jails in Fairfield County, southeast of Columbus, and Monroe County, 100 miles south of Portage County on the Ohio River.
"If you decide to build this pod, that's the best thing to do," he told commissioners, who expressed interest in touring one of his other projects. Doak said the jails in Geauga and Stark counties have similar setups.
Advances in jail design will cut staffing costs by reducing the movement of prisoners within the jail. Video visitation systems in the pods can allow family members to speak with their incarcerated loved ones, while commissary kiosks and additional classrooms for 12-step recovery, educational or religious activities cut down on the need to take inmates elsewhere in the building.
Portage County judges already arraign many criminal defendants via video links to their courtrooms, and "it's not real expensive to put video arraignment equipment in a classroom" in the jail, McAnally said.
Central control "is a good idea," sheriff's Detective Danny Burns told commissioners. He said more cameras will increase staff and inmate safety, reduce the need to move inmates and ensure better access to inmates for their attorneys and visitors.
Doak and commissioners rejected as too expensive and too difficult plans to convert an outdoor exercise area and gymnasium to housing units. Though that plan cost $6 million, an estimated $2.1 million plus would be spent housing between 48 and 96 Portage County inmates elsewhere for up to nine months while renovations were completed.
That plan also assumed space could be found and that neighboring counties would take Portage County inmates, Doak said, and doesn't include the cost of his deputies transporting those inmates to and from court hearings and medical appointments.
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