Delaware County Jail: New cameras boost focus on improved security

Paul Comstock
ThisWeek
Zach Rushin, a Delaware County corrections officer, listens to his radio outside the facility at 844 U.S. Route 42 N. in Delaware. The county has approved the $97,980 purchase of a new closed-circuit TV system for the jail. Cameras will be installed at spots that include the tall pole behind Rushin and will monitor all areas, including the fenced-in section on the right.

The Delaware County commissioners on Nov. 23 approved the purchase of a new security camera system for the county jail, which will be the latest in a number of ongoing steps designed to improve safety and security at the facility.

 “The safety and security of our jail facility is critical, not only for the inmates but for our staff, as well. With a 286-bed facility, we need reliable equipment and smart technology to ensure a safe environment,” Sheriff Russell Martin said.

Chief Deputy Jeffrey Balzer said the system will include 30 new or replacement cameras and five new computer drives of 8 terabytes each.

The overall cost is about $97,980, and Stanley Convergent Security Solutions of Brecksville will be the vendor.

Balzer said the system will replace a closed-circuit TV system that dates to the early 2000s.

The security cameras allow the jail staff to monitor the facility in real time, Balzer said, and the increased computer storage will allow for a more comprehensive history of recordings to be stored.

One goal of the new system will be to cover some areas perceived as blind spots to existing cameras, he said. Those spots need to be visible to help the jail follow the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which was passed in 2003 to prevent sexual assault in correction facilities.

The bigger security picture

The new camera system will follow the installation a year ago of another security device at the jail, a Tek84 Intercept full-body scanner.

The scanner essentially is a full-length X-ray that reveals if someone being booked into the jail has a weapon or drugs in their clothing or inside their body.

Balzer said the scanner was purchased to prevent contraband from entering the jail, and thus far, it's been a resounding success.

The scanner has "done exactly what I thought it would," Balzer said.

"The biggest thing about a body scanner is the deterrence," he said.

It was expected the scanner would deter inmates from trying to bring contraband into the jail, and all evidence suggests that's what has occurred, he said.

Several times, he said, the scanner revealed something the jail staff couldn't identify, and the inmates were sent to a hospital to be examined for a possible medical problem.

"To our knowledge, no contraband has come in," Balzer said.

Even so, he said, all newly arriving inmates are put in cells where they can be monitored to ensure it's safe for them to join the jail's general population.

COVID-19 pandemic precautions

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic erupted after the scanner was installed, Balzer said, and brought with it a host of new challenges for the jail, at 844 U.S. Route 42 N. in Delaware.

"We jumped on the precautions early, at the very beginning of the outbreak," he said, aided by the Delaware General Health District and the jail's contract physician, Dr. Betty Mitchell, who also has a master's degree in public health.

"She has been wonderful through this crisis, giving us direction on what to do to keep our inmates and our staff safe," Balzer said. "With the guidance of Dr. Mitchell and the health district, and all the precautions we've got in place, we've really been able to limit it."

As of Dec. 1, he said, no inmate at the jail has tested positive for the virus, but some have tested positive after transferring to other facilities.

Inmates are encouraged to wear masks at all times and required to wear them outside their housing units.

The jail’s staff wear masks at all times and have N95 masks, face shields, gowns and rubber gloves for use when needed, Balzer said. The staff also will quarantine any inmate suspected of testing positive for COVID-19.

Before the pandemic, the jail averaged about 200 inmates at any given time, a number which since has fallen to about 140, he said.

"We specifically got to these numbers because the judges and prosecutor and law enforcement helped us. We've asked them that if people are not charged with violent or serious offenses, to summons them into court. And we've left that discretion up to the agencies and the judges. They've been wonderful at helping us to keep our population manageable, so we can still have areas in the jail where we can set aside a quarantine area to keep the inmates safe," Balzer said. 

Balzer said the jail staff have risen to meet the challenges of the pandemic.

"Throughout this time period, they have done an awesome job. Everything that society's going through, we're going through, as well, except we're also doing it many times with N95 masks, face shields and gowns, on through an entire shift and sometimes even a shift and a half,” he said. "They've performed above and beyond what I expected, and I'm just very proud of the job they've done." 

Prevention of suicide and self-harm

In August and September, two Columbus men in the county jail on low-level felony charges committed suicide. Both passed screening questions posed by jail staff related to self-harm.

In both cases, material was attached to the openings in metal ventilation grates on the 9-foot-tall walls within the private cells.

Balzer said the county wanted to replace 120 grates in the facility – built in the late 1980s – in hopes of minimizing tragedies.

Finding grates that would accomplish that has proved challenging, he said. The grates used in the jail essentially are the same type approved for correctional facilities now being built, he said. 

The jail has contacted state inspectors, construction companies and architects who specialize in correctional facilities, "but we are still having difficulty finding the exact right solution to these vent covers," Balzer said.

"It's frustrating. We are having difficulties trying to find a way to out-engineer this problem," he said.

The jail staff have modified policies and procedures and have tried to identify areas that might contribute to the risk of self-harm.

"It's so frustrating when we have something like this happen. A person sits in a cell or in an area 24 hours a day, and even though our officers interact with them and check by and talk with them, it's hard to know what's in their mind," he said. "We've got mental-health professionals that screen them. We ask them suicide screening questions at least three times when they first come in and as they go along throughout this process.

“But unfortunately, people, when they have nothing but time, they will look for any way possible to do this. ... It's difficult to impossible to eliminate all risks inside a jail," he said.

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