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Greene County ready to vote again for new jail

The downtown Greene County Jail in Xenia
Desmond Winton-Finklea
The downtown Greene County Jail in Xenia

Tuesday is Election Day. One of the decisions in front of voters in Greene County is whether to approve a levy that would fund the construction of a new county jail. A similar levy was soundly rejected in April 2020. Advocates for the new jail say it is desperately needed. But opponents say a new jail won’t fix a broken system.

The Downtown Jail

With his ring of keys jangling in his hand, Major Kirk Keller walked through the basement of the downtown Greene County Jail. He pointed out the water stains from flooding and the places where there are still asbestos tiles. In one storage room, the ceiling is close to collapsing and held up by steel beams. Last week, an inmate was trapped in a broken elevator.

In the staff locker room, which also doubles as an interrogation room when agencies come to interview inmates, the wall is literally disintegrating from water damage.

Wall disintegrating in the basement of the Greene County Jail
Desmond Winton-Finklea
Wall disintegrating in the basement of the Greene County Jail

“This is about as clean as we can get it, and you can see since I’ve done that, it’s still eroding,” Keller said.

The building is over 50 years old. It’s been under a federal consent decree for poor conditions and overcrowding since 1989. Keller said he and his staff are doing their best, but, in his words, renovating the jail feels like polishing a turd.

Major Kirk Keller from the Sheriff's Office during an interview
Desmond Winton-Finklea
Major Kirk Keller from the Sheriff's Office during an interview

"We’re following procedure. We’re doing the things we should do to keep the inmates safe, keep them secure," he said.e said, “In the last several years, those reports have consistently come back: you need a new jail.”

The facility houses up to 146 inmates. The county has another building called the Adult Detention Center. It has a capacity of 236.

If the levy passes, all the facilities would be combined at one site — probably next to where the Adult Detention Center is now on Greene Way Boulevard in Xenia. The new facility would increase the total inmate capacity of the county by just two people, from 382 to 384. Keller said the Adult Detention Center could potentially become an inpatient drug or mental health services facility, and the downtown jail would most likely be demolished.

The new facility will cost between $50 and $70 million, depending on construction material costs, and would be funded by a temporary 0.25 % increase in the county’s sales tax. The tax would be expected to last for 16 years and would be lifted after the new jail is funded.

The Opposition

There has been strong grassroots opposition to the new jail for the past few years.

Opponents said the kind of money that would be raised from a levy could be better spent on programs that help people, like those struggling with addiction and mental health challenges. The current jail proposal does not include any funding for those kinds of programs, or specifics on how the facilities will support those efforts.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, Bomani Moyenda, a member of the Greene county Coalition for Compassionate Justice, passed out yard signs in front of a coffee shop in downtown Yellow Springs.

Bomani Moyenda sits in downtown Yellow Springs on a rainy afternoon passing out yard signs against the jail levy
Chris Welter
Bomani Moyenda sits in downtown Yellow Springs on a rainy afternoon passing out yard signs against the jail levy

He said he has been organizing the opposition to the new jail for two years.

“This sign says 'Waste of money. Waste of lives. Vote no on jail issue number one,” Moyenda said, “and our other version says 'We can do better with 53 million dollars. Vote no on jail issue number one.'”

Moyenda and his group were able to mobilize support from fiscal conservatives who were concerned about rising taxes in this red county when the levy was on the ballot the last time. They canvassed and passed out flyers all across the county. But this time around, Moyenda said, things look different.

He said he can sense the exhaustion and burnout among his fellow campaigners. Moyenda also said he and other opponents of the jail feel they have been spied on by a consulting firm hired by the county. In April, the Greene County commissioners paid $50,000 to a company called HDR. The company’s job is to, in part, provide weekly social listening reports of what community members are saying about the jail online. Moyenda said he sees this activity from the county as a part of the larger prison industrial complex.

“Here we are all over again, still under the influence of authoritarianism lurching towards fascism, and so it's real scary.”

Still no funds for programming

Moyenda and others are calling for major reforms in the criminal justice system — far beyond the scope of one new county jail. But the people who work in the jail every day said something needs to be done about the building as it is right now. Major Keller from the sheriff's office says that if they are going to have change, it will all start with a new facility.

However, even Keller admits there still won’t be any permanent funding for addiction and mental health services for Greene County’s inmates, even if the new levy passes. For that, he said they will have to apply for grants.

Environmental reporter Chris Welter is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.