After discovering that inmates were planning to use the courthouse as a collection site for drug trafficking, Judge Marion Common Pleas WT Edwards aims to beef up security.
According to an email sent to the courthouse by Captain Peg Romine of Marion County Corrections, several inmates had made a plan to pick up drugs from the courthouse when they were due in court. In the email, Romine said three inmates had outside sources place drugs on the floor to appear as garbage where inmates are dropped off at the courthouse by the transport van.
Since finding out, Edwards has said those detainees are under investigation by law enforcement. However, this is not the fault of the security guards. With a police officer sometimes tasked with following five inmates while dropping them off, Edwards said officers may briefly lose sight of them.
“It becomes a safety threat when you are dealing with drugs like fentanyl where contact with this substance could lead to an overdose and even a safety officer coming down from that contact,” Edwards said.
To combat this, Edwards devised a plan that includes freeing the alley between the courthouse and the DA’s office. Most recently, Edwards received approval from Marion City Council, in a 9-0 vote, and Marion County Commissioners, in a 3-0 vote, to do so.
While designs are still determined by Edwards, County Commissioners, MCC and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, Edwards envisions a fenced area with an entry and exit gate that would be guarded by security. Not only can this help reduce drug smuggling into the prison, but it’s also a requirement of the Ohio Supreme Court, he said.
Edwards, at Monday night’s city council meeting, said he brought the Ohio Supreme Court to the courthouse for a safety assessment. Meanwhile, he confirmed that the current setup, where people can walk freely in the alley, poses a threat to the security of the courthouse. According to the Supreme Court, prisoners must be transported to a court through areas that are not accessible to the public.
In addition, Edwards said the current configuration of the judges’ park is also not subject to the Supreme Court’s security code. According to the Supreme Court, it is recommended that a court design a secure area for sitting judges to park their cars throughout the day. Edwards said this new fenced area would be where he and the other judges would be able to park their cars safely, as they often work late at night and leave the courthouse alone.
“So we’re looking to kill two birds with one stone here by making this alleyway a separate and secure parking lot for the three court officials at this courthouse,” Edwards said during the virtual public hearing at city council. “In addition to a crossing and secure area for the transport of loading and unloading prisoners which would therefore be inaccessible to the public.”
Edwards added that this was an urgent matter for the courthouse, as he worked to get this proposal through to officials for the past two years. He cited past events where people attempted to contact dropped off inmates and an inmate who had previously attempted to escape. He also said that a probation officer’s car, which is parked in the area, had been locked and scratched several times.
However, Edwards’ plans for this new area have already undergone aesthetic changes since their proposal. First, Edwards introduced the idea of chain link fences with barbed wire. While many downtown Marion city council members and investors favored tighter security, they feared this design choice was unsightly next to the recent revitalization.
The design has been changed. This time, Edwards offered to disguise the fence with steel slats and he encountered much more favorable advice from city council. Now Edwards’ plan has a fence starting at the Center Street alley entry point and ending near the air conditioning unit behind the DA’s office.
Although Edwards’ plan meets Supreme Court requirements, this design has yet to be approved by county commissioners. Commissioner Ken Stiverson said another possibility he supported would be to build a fully fleshy exit port around the drop-off location. Stiverson said it was because they wanted to protect the history and integrity of the courthouse while avoiding having an area that looks like the prison fence.
“In my opinion, a lot of people are using this alley and we don’t want to shut it down completely,” Stiverson said. “I think there are alternatives myself that we are going to investigate. I don’t want a prison fence there.”
In response to a port sally, Edwards said this would more than likely exceed the estimated cost of the original plan which was around $ 93,000. Since the area is crossed by power lines and water pipes below, building an exit port could be more labor intensive and costly. Also, he said, building the sally harbor would take longer than putting up fences.
Edwards said they are currently applying for a grant to help cover the cost of the project. While he said the court had the money to pay for the original chain link fence design, adding the steel slats could push the price up further. Edwards added that there is a “gentlemen’s agreement” with city and county officials that they would pay the additional cost overrun for the steel slats due to cosmetic concerns.
Mitch Hooper Story | (740) -244-9935 | [email protected] | @ _MH16 on Twitter