Jackson County Jail: Overcrowded for 32 years

Medford, Ore. — The Jackson County Jail has been at maximum capacity for more than 30 years. Its a problem that county jails across Oregon, and the nation, are dealing with — not enough room to hold people, accused of committing crimes. However, it’s not just the jail it’s affecting, it’s the entire criminal justice system, and the community as a whole.

The Jackson County Jail has been up and running since 1981, but very rarely have cameras been allowed inside. Jackson County Sheriff’s Captain Dan Penland took NBC5 News inside the facility to learn more about the jail’s lengthy history, along with it’s everyday procedures.

“Everybody who comes in gets a file, as you can see, some of them have multiple stays, so there’s just tons of paperwork,” Penland said.

Between the paperwork, and the multiple stays per person, Captain Penland noted the jail is rarely empty. And of everyone at the facility, he would know.

“I started in 1981, the jail was about six months old when I started,” Penland said.

Through that experience, Penland has seen the jail evolve over time, but he says one problem has remained a constant.

“We were sued for jail overcrowding in 1985, and we agreed to certain conditions based on that lawsuit that kind of led us to where we are today,” Penland told NBC5 News.

Right now, the jail has 230 beds, but when they open the basement, they’ll have 62 more. Of those, 37 beds are for female inmates, the rest are for men. As for the ratio of deputies to inmates, those numbers are kept close to the vest.

“We don’t really go into how many are working each shift cause that’s kind of a security issue,” Penland said. “We’re required every hour to check on each inmate, and document each check.”

Last year, the jail housed more than 14,000 inmates. Penland noted it’s been increasing at a steady rate; that was 2,000 more than in 2015.

The other  side of the issue, even when there’s no room, space still needs to be created, as new inmates are brought in. That means releasing others.

“Which one is the best risk to let out in public, I mean sometimes there are no good choices, but we try to get the one that’s least likely to go out and cause harm in the community,” Penland said.

The jail uses a matrix system. It creates a “risk rating” for each inmate, calculated by numerous variables, including criminal history, and the seriousness of their past and current offenses.

“It’s something that a lot of counties in Oregon use, it’s based on Oregon criminal histories, and it seems to be working,” Penland stated.

The fix is only a temporary one; Penland says rapid releases don’t just affect jail staff.

“It causes a lot of  problems for the whole system,” Penland said.

Medford Police Chief Randy Sparacino says it affects his department in a number of ways.

“In the last probably 10 to 15 years is when we’ve really seen the issue,” Sparacino said. “There are times where an officer will arrest someone at night, and the shift coming on in the morning will see that person walking down 8th street the next day.”

It also affects the court system, and the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office, especially when it comes to offenders with a number of less serious charges.

“They’re getting released before they can even make court appearances,” Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert said. “That gets frustrating, because they’ll go out and get another, charge, get arrested, return back to the facility, and get released again before they can actually get into court.”

While the care of the facility is in the hands of the Sheriff’s Office, Captain Penland says it’s an issue that everyone should be aware of.

“The Sheriff is the one that manages the jail, but the overcrowding problem is the whole valley’s problem,” Penland said.

Sheriff Nathan Sickler is hoping to open the basement before July.

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