COVID-19, escapes, inmate suicide called 'run of bad luck' at Ohio jail
Sheriff John L. Hinton is reassuring the public that the jail is fully functioning and safe
By Dean Narciso
The Columbus Dispatch
MORROW COUNTY, Ohio — Two escapes and an inmate suicide within a month at the Morrow County Correctional Facility have left area residents with questions and Sheriff John L. Hinton wondering what more he can do with limited resources.
The 30-year-old facility in Mount Gilead has nine fewer correction officers than the 32 it started with this year.
"It's a revolving door," said Hinton, who has been sheriff for almost four years. Staffing is hampered by low wages, with correction officers topping out at $18.47 per hour.
Hinton said he doesn't want to come across as a "woe-is-me complainer." Instead, he wants to reassure the public that the jail is fully functioning and safe.
That his Facebook posts following escapes Aug. 21 and Sept. 8 have produced several hundred public responses has not made his job easier.
Neither did a spike in coronavirus cases in the jail earlier this year. At one point this spring, 54 inmates tested positive for COVID-19 out of 77 who were tested. The jail's capacity is 126 and currently houses 90 inmates.
The virus outbreak, escapes and an Aug. 8 suicide of a man charged with a sex offense, drew this response, posted Sept. 9, from the Ohio Immigrant Alliance: "How much incompetence can one county jail exhibit, and continue to operate? Last night's jail break from the Morrow County Correctional Facility should be the last straw."
"There's nothing wrong with our jail," Hinton countered. "All this stuff people are saying is just not true."
Immigrant Alliance Director Lynn Tramonte is calling for the jail, which also serves as an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility, to be closed.
Tramonte said that filthy conditions, "inedible" food and other issues are causing low morale among inmates, and for jailers to leave.
"If the tax base in Morrow County can't afford a jail, they shouldn't have one," Tramonte said.
Notifying the community about what's going on at the jail also is an issue, some said. Following Tuesday' escape, Cindy Reed Hayes responded on Facebook:
"This is troubling. It's the second inmate to escape within a week or so. Thank goodness he didn't pick up a gun along the way or things might have not ended so well. He had a lot of opportunities to hold someone hostage. An alert needs sent out immediately!"
Hinton said that an instant alert wasn't possible with Tuesday's escape, in which Zebadiah Eggers hopped a razor-wire-topped fence and ran, because he and others were pursuing the inmate. Eggers was captured within about 35 minutes, Hinton said.
The Aug. 21 escape occurred when Kevin Fields dug his way under the same chain-link fence, after two other inmates distracted a guard while about a dozen inmates were outdoors for recreation.
Hinton said that having a second guard stand outside the jail's fence during outdoor inmate breaks would help.
"More people, more resources, always helps," he said.
Burgess Castle, chairman of Morrow County Board of Commissioners, stands by Hinton's command of the jail.
"I really hate what's happened here," he said. "We're trying to give him as much funding as we can to operate his jail. I'm not sure why this is happening. I think it's a run of bad luck."
Bob Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs' Association, said that critics don't always understand the complexities of jail operations and funding.
Relatives of inmates, Cornwell said "are listening to their loved ones in that facility. And all they want to do is complain. They are not realistic in their complaints."
Cornwell did say, however, that the jail's annual budget of $614,000 is "really small."
"When you're down nine people, it costs overtime to man those posts. And you talk about fatigue. It wears you out."
©2020 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)