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Clock ticking on future of a privately run jail

Columbiana County’s jail has been privatized for more than 20 years, but judging from the rash of problems recently reported there, perhaps it’s time to revisit its method of operation.

There’s no doubt privatizing the jail has saved this county money. A Morning Journal analysis compiled the first year of privatization showed the county saved more than a million dollars and County Commissioner Mike Halleck, the architect of the privatization plan, says it has saved the county more than $20 million since 1998.

Over those 20 years the company operating the jail has changed three times, and some cite this as a cause of recent problems. The GEO Group has been operating the jail since early 2017. Low pay for corrections officers, inadequate training and staff turnover at GEO have been cited as contributing factors by county officials.

County Prosecutor Bob Herron notes that the general character of the average inmate has changed. He said they are seeing more and more inmates with long criminal records who have served multiple stints in prison.

Increased drug trafficking in the county has brought gang members from large cities, such as Cleveland, and how they conduct themselves in jail has rubbed off on local inmates.

After constant turnover in the position, the sixth warden in 24 months has been hired and in May, Halleck unveiled a plan aimed at addressing many of the problems, including hosting weekly meetings with Sheriff Ray Stone and the warden to improve communications and resolve problems. A new camera system and body scanner are being added, and GEO has begun paying its workers a better wage and providing more training.

These new changes should be given a chance to work, but if in six months the problems persist, the county should consider taking control.

But if the county resumes operating the jail, it will most likely be at a higher cost. Paying more to run the jail will mean commissioners must find other ways to cut the budget, so other officeholders had better be prepared to tighten their belts.

Also, Sheriff Stone, who is legally responsible for the jail, will have to resume operating it, so he had better start developing a plan to run it.

No one expects the county jail to be run like a five-star hotel, but inmates and staff have a right to expect a safe environment in which to live and work. If a private company can’t deliver a safe and efficient jail, the county must.

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