Civil rights probe into jail requested
Montgomery sheriff plans to respond today to commission’s action.
By Cornelius Frolik and Mark Gokavi
The Montgomery County Commissioners on Tuesday called for a federal investigation into potential civil rights violations at the county jail, citing a series of incidents that resulted in litigation against the county, jail and sheriff’s office.
County commissioners held a press conference to announce they are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a probe into the county jail to review whether there has been misconduct and improper practices.
“As elected commissioners for Montgomery County, Ohio, we are very concerned about the manner in which Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer is operating the county jail,” according to the letter signed by all three commissioners, which is addressed to Acting U.S. Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler.
The county faces seven civil lawsuits filed by former jail inmates who claim they were mistreated and abused while incarcerated, which could put county taxpayers on the hook for significant sums of money if the legal actions succeed or lead to big settlements.
“We stand here today because we are concerned about the continued allegations of misconduct at the county jail,” said Montgomery County Board of Commissioners President Dan Foley.
Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer said he would hold a press conference today to respond to the commission’s action. Plummer said he was already starting to form an oversight committee for the jail.
“It’s already in motion,” he told this news organization. “We are already in the process of building a community oversight committee.”
Commissioners met with Plummer in executive session Tuesday morning to discuss the seven lawsuits that have been brought against the county alleging civil rights violations and misconduct at the jail, county leaders said.
Commissioners offered to work with the sheriff to put together a plan using community input to address issues and challenges at the jail, but Plummer was not interested, Foley said.
Civil complaints and litigation tied to the actions of jail staff are eating up county resources, and county commissioners want citizens to know that the sheriff’s lack of action to remedy these issues is unacceptable, Foley said.
Commissioners have no authority over the jail or to remove the sheriff, who is elected by county voters, officials said.
But they have asked the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department to immediately investigate potential civil rights violations and allegations of improper use of force against jail inmates, according to the commission’s letter.
“We believe a federal investigation is warranted and necessary to determine the validity of these allegations and provide corrective actions if the allegations prove to be accurate,” the letter states.
Foley said inmates at the jail deserve fair, impartial and humane treatment while incarcerated.
The sheriff, Foley said, is responsible for ensuring the officers who operate under his command are obeying the law and the sheriff’s policies to keep themselves and inmates safe.
County commissioners said they understand the seriousness of their request to the federal government, but they felt obligated to act owing to the sheriff’s unwillingness to do the same.
“We haven’t taken this lightly at all,” said Commissioner Debbie Lieberman. “We are deeply concerned about what’s happening at the jail.”
The I-Team reported in November that one of those cases led to an ongoing federal probe into the pepper spraying of an inmate while she was in a restraint chair, and the disappearance of video and other records of the incident from the sheriff’s office. Dayton police say an investigation into whether the incident was a criminal assault is also ongoing.
Most recently, a homeless veteran sued the jail alleging he was beaten so badly by corrections officers that he was left permanently disabled and wheelchair bound.
The jail has also faced issues with racial discord among staff — the head of the jail was recently demoted after making ‘inappropriate’ comments towards a black corrections officer — and officers have alleged black female inmates get worse accommodations than while females.
An I-Team analysis of jail housing data found that the majority of female inmates are white and most reside in larger dorm-style housing while the black female population was mostly housed in smaller, more crowded “rollover” cells. The sheriff’s office responded in November saying they would perform an “expedited” review of the findings, but requests for an update on that review have gone unanswered.