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Montgomery County delays plans for new, expanded jail due to lack of funds

Montgomery County Jail
Joshua Chenault
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WYSO

People from a local anti-mass incarceration group expressed concern at the Montgomery County commission meeting this week about a jail capital improvement project state grant application the county filed. Officials said that even if Montgomery County gets the grant, that doesn’t necessarily mean they plan, or have the funds, to build a new, expanded jail.

For context, Montgomery County paid a controversial engineering firm to do something called a Jail and Justice System Assessment last year. County leaders said the current jail has been overcrowded for years. After the county looked at HDR’s assessment, they realized they would need around 200 million dollars to construct a new, expanded jail that is up to their standards. Commissioners deemed that 200 million dollar figure too expensive, so about a year ago, they put plans for a new jail on hold. Since then, commissioners have funded projects in 2022 to renovate the jail’s HVAC system and improve security.

The Montgomery County Jail Coalition is a citizens group that wants to reduce the jail population. Coalition members said they have been tracking the commission activity and holding public forums about building a new jail since 2017.

Group members said they were surprised when county commissioners agreed in November to apply for a $50 million state grant for a "jail capital improvement project." The coalition took that as a sign the commissioners wanted to build a new jail without public input.

Commissioner Debbie Lieberman responds to public comment from the Montgomery County Jail Coalition
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Commissioner Debbie Lieberman responds to public comment from the Montgomery County Jail Coalition

Joel Pruce is a University of Dayton Professor and part of the coalition. He and five other coalition members spoke at yesterday's meeting.

"The Montgomery County Jail Coalition represents an engaged constituency who simply wants to learn more about how the system works,” Pruce said during the public comment period. “and we believe the public must have a role in shaping this crucial decision."

Commissioners Judy Dodge and Debbie Lieberman, along with County Administrator Michael Colbert all responded to the Jail Coalition group member comments at the meeting.

They said no firm plans are in place to expand the current jail or build a new one, and they referenced programs they've funded to reduce the current jail population and improve the conditions there. All three also said if they do decide to build or expand the jail, the public will be included.

"I mean, there's just so much, and again, we hear you and we get it, and let's do this together," Lieberman said.

Montgomery County Director of Communications Deb Decker said in an interview after the commission meeting that even if the state grant is given to them, that doesn't mean they would be in a financial position to build a new jail.

“Even if we get the 50 million, are we going to be fat, happy and ready to build a new jail? No,” Decker said.

Chris Welter is a reporter and corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Chris Welter is an Environmental Reporter at WYSO through Report for America. In 2017, he completed the radio training program at WYSO's Eichelberger Center for Community Voices. Prior to joining the team at WYSO, he did boots-on-the-ground conservation work and policy research on land-use issues in southwest Ohio as a Miller Fellow with the Tecumseh Land Trust.