Sheriff clarifies that jail wasn't 'closed.' Jail was short-staffed. Here's what happened

The Hamilton County Justice Center in Downtown Cincinnati houses about 1,100 to 1,200 prisoners daily
The Hamilton County Justice Center in Downtown Cincinnati houses about 1,100 to 1,200 prisoners daily

An unusual message went out from the Hamilton County sheriff Sunday night.

The sheriff's department sent out a statement to the media that the jail was "closed" to certain prisoners from 11 p.m. Sunday to 7 a.m. Monday.

"Intake at the Hamilton County Justice Center is closed until 7 a.m. but we will accept individuals who fall in these 3 categories: Physical Arrest (in which they may pose a threat to the public); Felony, or Violent Offense," according to a statement sent out Sunday evening by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

The jail wasn't closed, said Sheriff Charmaine McGuffey in a press conference called on Monday. But what happened Sunday night at the Hamilton County jail highlighted an ongoing issue with jail staffing.

'A poor choice of words'

The jail was short-staffed Sunday night as a result of some deputies who called in sick and others who had to make unexpected prisoner transports to area hospitals.

The sheriff had asked law enforcement Sunday night into Monday morning to just cite nonviolent misdemeanors, such as someone cited for an open bottle of alcohol, rather than take the offenders to jail.

In Monday's press conference at the sheriff's office downtown, McGuffey expressed frustration with the choice of words that was sent out in the statement on Sunday.

"The jail was not closed," McGuffey said. "What happened was a very poor choice of words."

The jail took in six felons Sunday night and Monday morning, an average number for the jail for that time, McGuffey said.

When asked how many misdemeanor offenders were cited rather than taken to jail, McGuffey said she didn't know.

"There was never any danger to the public," McGuffey said. "At no time did we ever turn away anybody that was charged with a serious crime."

A national shortage of corrections officers

While the Hamilton County jail was not closed, the jail does not have enough corrections officers, McGuffey said. It's an issue that has plagued the jail for the past several years, she said, as the sheriff and other county agencies have struggled to recruit.

The jail staff was down to 40 officers Sunday night, compared the full complement of 60 officers needed for that shift overnight on Sunday into Monday, according Capt. Scott Kerr, who oversees the jail for the sheriff's department. Four corrections officers called in sick, another four had to transport prisoners to the hospital, he said. There were also some officers on leave for training.

The sheriff's department called in management and patrol officers to fill in at the jail, Kerr said. The jail was back to full staff at 6 a.m. Monday.

Sunday night wasn't the first time the Hamilton County sheriff had to restrict the prisoners admitted to the jail. But it was the first time it happened due to low staffing, McGuffey said. The sheriff said she had issued similar restrictions during the COVID pandemic in 2020 to reduce the jail population.

At the press conference, McGuffey and Hamilton County commissioner Denise Driehaus gave a variety of reasons for why the jail has struggled to stay staffed. They said it was a national issue and departments across the country. Also, long hours worked by the jail staff to compensate for the staffing issues, including mandatory overtime, makes retention difficult, they said.

'This isn't a money issue.'

The county has tried to sweeten the deal for employees, raising wages, increasing parental leave and paying for police academy training.

"This isn’t a money issue," Driehaus said. "This is a matter of getting people in a very difficult market."

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police in 2020 and the protests that ensued have also made recruiting in law enforcement more difficult, McGuffey said.

McGuffey said they will look at how to better staff the jail to prevent what happened Sunday night from happening again.

"We do have some remedies to make sure this doesn't happen again," McGuffey said. "I can't guarantee it cause I don't know. I don't know when inmates are going to go to the hospital, and I don't know when people are going to call in sick."

Whether the short staffing Sunday night at the jail caused an issue out in the community wasn't clear. Calls to other police agencies, such as Colerain Township and Cincinnati, were not returned. In Norwood, it didn't appear to cause any issues with arrests Sunday night or Monday morning, said Lt. Steven Thomas, with the Norwood Police Department.

Thomas, who said he's worked in local law enforcement for 15 years, is not aware of a similar situation arising at the jail.

"It raises some concern," Thomas said. "It is one of those things where we have to wait and see how the sheriff's office handles it."

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: What happened at the Hamilton County jail Sunday night?