Increased heroin use contributes to overcrowding in Portage County Jail

Portage County Sheriff David Doak

Portage County Jail is experiencing severe overcrowding in the women’s section due to increased illegal drug use in northeast Ohio.

Portage County Sheriff David Doak said he is concerned the jail could face a lawsuit if conditions don’t improve.

“There was an overcrowding issue back in the ’80s,” Doak said. “One of the inmates was complaining, and the sheriff got disgusted, and he said, ‘Well, if you don’t like it, sue me!’ So he did. He filed a federal lawsuit, and that’s how this building got here.”

The costly lawsuit resulted in a federal court order requiring a new jail be built. Now the jail once again lacks the facilities and staff to provide for the number of inmates. The jail has been over capacity for the past two to three years.

Doak said the jail only has enough beds to house 34 female prisoners at a time.

“For a period of time, we have exceeded that,” he said. “Off the top of my head, I can’t remember when we were at 34. It’s been that long.”

When the beds are full the rest of the inmates sleep on the floor in portable plastic beds, referred to as “boats.”

“One Monday I came in here, we had 60 females,” Doak said. “I mean, we were literally stepping over bodies back there.”

Portage County Jail typically experiences its highest numbers of inmates during long weekends, but overcrowding is still a nagging issue. Doak said a number of things contribute to the influx in female inmates, but drugs and alcohol are high on the list. The problem is widespread.

“There’s other sheriffs that are facing the same issue. It’s not confined here,” he said.

Other jails in Ohio, including Summit County Jail, have problems with overcrowding.

Marcia Flowers, 31, knows how drug use can lead to jail time. She spent two, three-week stints in the Summit County Jail, once after being caught for possession in 2012 and again after violating her probation in 2013.

Earlier this month, the jail released 71 inmates due to budget constraints. While Flowers was in jail, she saw some of the overcrowded conditions herself.

“I’d get in there, and it was full. All the beds were taken,” she said.

Inmates were frequently moved to other jails to make room for new inmates. Flowers did not experience the overcrowded conditions for very long because she was quickly transferred to Glenwood Jail in Akron due to the lack of space.

Flowers has been sober since July 4, 2013, and now works as a resident supervisor at Interval Brotherhood Home (IBH), an addiction recovery center in Akron. Her personal experience with the consequences of drug abuse inspires her to help others overcome their addiction.

“A lot of people go to prison, they come back, and they’re right back on the streets using because they never got that addiction treated,” she said.

Several treatment options are available, including detox and counseling programs. Flowers said punishments such as jail time are not enough to combat the problem of addiction.

“I think drug use, and drug addiction, should be treated as an illness,” she said. “A lot of people that aren’t in a program, or are not drug addicts, or whatever, they don’t understand this: I was not myself when I was doing all that stuff. I did some bad things to my family. That’s not who I was.”

Flowers said she started using heroin and other illegal drugs after developing an addiction to painkillers.

“I had surgery. That’s what started me on the prescription drugs,” Flowers said. “I went to a very generous doctor. I called him my ‘legal drug dealer.’”

Clinical Services Director Rob Young with Townhall II, a health, wellness and recovery center, said Kent’s recent increase in heroin use can be traced back to abuse of over-the-counter pain medication.

Young said that several years ago, doctors were often providing powerful pain medications, such as OxyContin, to virtually anyone who asked for them, especially in southwest Ohio.

The prescription supply was eventually cut off due to stricter regulations. Those who became addicted replaced over-the-counter drugs with heroin, which is cheap and easy to obtain.

“Probably for the last four years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of individuals coming to our agency with an opiate or heroin addiction,” Young said.

Those addicted to painkillers and heroin suffer painful physical symptoms of withdrawal if they try to stop using the drug. Young said the symptoms of withdrawal can be compared to a much more intense version of the flu, and continuing to use heroin offers temporary relief.

“There is a very high relapse rate primarily because people develop the physical addiction to opiates very quickly,” Young said. “Lots of people would love to quit using, but they can’t because of the withdrawal.”

While improving the conditions in jail is important, Young said providing better treatment for addicts should be the priority. After being released from jail, heroin addicts often have no jobs or family to support them and continue using the drug to stop the pain. Without learning the skills necessary to help themselves addicts will usually end up back in jail.

Doak said substance abuse is the primary cause of the current overcrowding in his jail.

“If I could get rid of drugs and alcohol, I could probably have 10 percent of the population back there that we have now,” Doak said. “That’s how far out of control drugs are, and alcohol.”

Doak said the jail was looking into adding another pod onto the jail or adding on to the current structure. The staff has discussed plans to add additional bunks, as well as shower and toilet facilities, but they do not have the funding necessary to do so.

Although he admits it’s difficult to predict future inmate populations, Doak estimates an additional 32 to 34 beds could be enough to alleviate the overcrowding for five to seven years.

Yet the jail hasn’t been able to raise the money necessary to take on such a project. The two-year, $0.5 million levy to raise $1.2 million for the expansion failed this past November.

Even with the additional bed space, understaffing would still be an issue. Doak said the jail has been understaffed since he took the sheriff’s position in 2009, and manpower makes up nearly three quarters of the budget.

Doak said he hoped the levy would pass but understands why it failed.

“I’m the sheriff, but I’m also a taxpayer in this county,” he said. “And when I put my taxpayer hat on, most people don’t want to pay to keep people in jail.”