County Commissioners, sheriff respond to Gallia Jail troubles

By Dean Wright -

Gallia Commissioners discuss jail constructions plans with architecture firm DBX, a construction, engineering and architecture firm, in early September.

Gallia Commissioners discuss jail constructions plans with architecture firm DBX, a construction, engineering and architecture firm, in early September.

Dean Wright | OVP

GALLIPOLIS — Gallia County Commissioners during their regularly scheduled Thursday morning meeting at the Gallia Courthouse responded to recent controversy surrounding the Gallia Jail as a series of escapes and deaths have plagued the facility and garnered national attention.

“I would, first of all, give my condolences to the families who have lost individuals there,” said Gallia Commissioner David Smith of the deaths of two inmates in Gallia Sheriff’s Office custody. “It’s a tragedy. We’re doing everything we can to provide support to the sheriff and the means to do his job. It’s a very difficult job. Supporting law enforcement means providing resources, providing funding and that includes planning for a new jail because we know we need it.”

Commissioners began discussing inmate overcrowding statistics in October 2018 when they invited the Gallia law enforcement community to a meeting.

“Being a school administrator for years,” said Commissioner Brent Saunders during that October 2018 meeting, “I was over here several times due to juvenile court and having to file charges on unruly kids…The thing that I noticed, I’ve been downstairs through our jail about three times since I’ve been a commissioner. Usually I hear things like ‘Hi Coach Saunders, how you doing?’ It’s not by the workers. It’s by the prisoners. My concern for the situation there is the safety, number one, of the staff, and I hear recently there has been a lot of noise…So I am concerned about the safety of the staff. I’m concerned about the safety of the prisoners. If you take some young person that’s made a little mistake and he’s brought in here and taken down to our jail, I kind of fear for his safety. I fear for your safety, if you’ve ever worked the jail.”

According to Gallia Commissioner Harold Montgomery, 57 percent of Gallia’s general fund is going to Gallia law enforcement needs in 2019, when roughly 51 to 52 percent was going to law enforcement in 2018. That 57 percent includes the sheriff’s office funding as well as funding to Gallia court and indigent defense costs. Financial records gathered from the county indicate that of roughly $10.5 million appropriated for 2019 yearly expenses, the sheriff’s office is expected to spend around 40 percent of the total number.

Of the 57 percent of money to be spent on law enforcement, that includes $644,000 utilized to buy land just northeast of the Gallia Courthouse and adjacent to its property for the potential construction of a new jail.

As previously reported in January, Gallia Commissioners raised the county sales tax by a quarter of a percent after a unanimous vote, bringing the overall county sales tax to 7.25 which capped the county’s sales tax potential allotment. The tax increase has brought between $80,000 to $90,000 a month to the general fund since being enacted in April and received from the state in June.

At the time of the January vote to raise the sales tax, commissioners said they could raise the tax for the general fund if they voted unanimously to do so per the Ohio Revised Code. Reasons given by the commissioners for the raise included concerns about funding for county departments suffering opioid epidemic pains as well as the need for a jail. Had the tax been earmarked for a specific cause, said commissioners, it would have gone before voters.

“We’d be in (financial) trouble at the end of the year if we hadn’t done that,” said County Administrator Karen Sprague of the sales tax raise. “We’re already looking at a tight end of year.”

“The State of Ohio keeps pushing more and more responsibility onto the local level and we’ve got this crisis with the opioid issue,” said Smith. “A few years ago, they wanted to force the counties to hold the felony fours and fives. They’re nonviolent. The state used to house the prisoners. So, it all contributes…. All these factors come into play.”

“Answering for myself, there was no one particular event,” said Smith when asked what was a key moment when the commissioners decided it was time to construct a new jail. “It was a combination of things, including walking through our jail and discussions with one of our judges. …One of my (misgivings) to building or taking on this project is that, if you look historically, just about every county in the State of Ohio who has taken on a (jail construction project) gets into severe financial condition a few years after the jail has been built. That being said, recent events and evidence to that, we have no choice (but to build).”

Later on Thursday, after the Associated Press reported that the Gallia Jail had been repeatedly cited by state inspectors for failing to meet state jail standards, Smith commented to the report.

“After the inspections, I have always directed the sheriff’s office to address everything they could, realizing we couldn’t change the age of the structure and architectural things,” said Smith. “We know and have stated that facility is old when we started a few years ago to build support to replace it. Meigs County has been in a similar situation. They’ve taken the issue twice to their voters and its failed twice as a levy to support a new jail there…We’re well aware a new facility is needed.”

“My goal in running for office was to change the sheriff’s office,” said Gallia Sheriff Matt Champlin. “I know from my history in law enforcement that part of the problem with the sheriff’s office was the underlying problems of the jail. I didn’t know as much then about the jail as I do now. Whenever I took office, I knew that we needed a remedy and began conversations for a new jail.”

Champlin held a press conference Sunday afternoon on the steps of the Gallia Courthouse discussing jail troubles and steps taken to solve them after reports of the deaths of two inmates, one by reported overdose and the other by reported suicide, along with the escape of four male inmates who overpowered female corrections officers the same Sunday. The inmates were recovered in North Carolina, Monday.

Three successful escape attempts had been recorded since August.

“Ultimately, I am the Sheriff of Gallia County and although our commissioners (are responsible for sheriff office funding), I take full responsibility for the success as well as the failures that happen on my watch,” said Champlin during the conference. He agreed with critics that the jail was not equipped to handle law enforcement issues surrounding the concerns of mental health, violent offenders and substance abuse.

“I have and will continue to search for solutions until this problem is fixed,” said Champlin.

The respective deaths of David “Tommy” Gibson, 27, and Lacey Wolford, 35, were first reported by the Gallipolis Daily Tribune on Sept. 23. Gibson died Sept. 14 and Wolford died Sept. 23.

Gibson’s mother, Sherry Russell, questioned Champlin during Sunday’s press conference about a reportedly non-functioning camera system in the jail. She asserted that having previously served as a provider of mental health care medication to the jail, medical evaluations should have been completed within three days of an inmate’s arrival, per policy. Sheriff’s office officials said their policy reflected that evaluations were to be completed within 10 days. Russell disputed the 10-day statement.

“Your job is to protect the men that are in your facility,” Russell said to Champlin during the press conference. “He (Gibson) made some bad choices. He did not deserve to die.”

An unidentified man during the press conference pointed in the sheriff’s general direction and said, “These people saved my daughter’s life.”

Another unnamed woman asked where corrections officers were while Gibson was “hanging.”

Champlin said that jail protocols were being reviewed as part of an Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation probe and that it was still ongoing. He ended the press conference, saying the sheriff’s office would take no more questions. Champlin has stated that further questions and press inquiries should be made to Ohio BCI in regard to the investigation.

Dean Wright can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2103.

Gallia Commissioners discuss jail constructions plans with architecture firm DBX, a construction, engineering and architecture firm, in early September. Commissioners discuss jail constructions plans with architecture firm DBX, a construction, engineering and architecture firm, in early September. Dean Wright | OVP

By Dean Wright