This month, you can visit the Portage County Jail without getting arrested

Photo of the inside of a jail cell, with a bed, sink and toilet in a small white room
A cell in the Portage County Jail. Lyndsey Brennan/The Portager

The Portage County Sheriff’s Office is giving a half dozen public tours of the Portage County Jail throughout January, hoping to “educate and strengthen the knowledge” of people in the community interested in their operations, they announced on their Facebook page.

“There’s just a lot of people that would like to see transparency in what exactly we do,” Chief Deputy Ralph Spidalieri said in an interview. “And there’s a lot of taxpayers in the county that paid for the jail and pay for the sheriff services and they feel that they’ve got a right — and to be quite honest with you, they do.”

The tours run twice a week and show people the general operations of the jail. Visitors will not see or interact with any inmates during the course of the tour.

“There’s only designated areas,” Spidalieri said. “We don’t take them into the maximum security areas, we don’t take them into the medical ward, we don’t take them into the Covid ward.”

Spidalieri said the tours cost the office nothing to operate, and safety precautions are the same as in other county buildings: Masks and social distancing are required, with a maximum of 15 people per tour group.

People in the comments of the office’s post announcing the tours expressed both interest in seeing the jail and concern about the ethics of leading people through to “gawk” at inmates, though Spidalieri mentioned the latter will not happen. 

“I’ve always been interested in our criminal justice system, I’d like to see how our local jail is run and if there’s things we can help bring change to,” Alisha Rogers, who applied to participate, said in a text message. “I think the community will really see how jail is. Hopefully it’ll help make people make better choices with things in life.”

Another person who commented, Ruby Carter, said later in a text that she hoped to take her children on a tour. (The tours are for people 18 or older.)

“Just so they can get the experience. To see what it looks like and why they should abide by the laws because it is a place you don’t ever want to go,” she said. “I would hope that it would help others be a little more active in their community and work together to make sure our younger generation are not just part of a statistic.”

In recent years the county jail, run by the sheriff’s office, has been the subject of multiple abuse allegations from former inmates — most of which have been dismissed as false or retracted. A U.S. District Court dismissed a federal lawsuit against the previous Portage County sheriff for these allegations in 2021.

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Wyatt Loy is a reporter with the Collaborative News Lab @ Kent State University, producing local news coverage in partnership with The Portager.