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July 15, 2014

Year after lawsuit, jail overcrowding problem persists

Vigo has spent nearly $80K to house inmates elsewhere

TERRE HAUTE — Almost a year after the Indiana Civil Liberties Union of Indiana sued the Vigo County Sheriff and Commissioners alleging chronic jail overcrowding, the county has incurred close to $80,000 in additional inmate housing costs, but is no closer to solving its cell shortage problem.

As of Monday, since August 2013, Vigo County has paid $79,675 to house inmates at the Knox, Parke and Clay county jails to keep the Vigo County Jail inmate census below 268, which is the bed limit of the facility.

Sheriff Greg Ewing told the Tribune-Star on Monday that he was housing 21 inmates at the Knox and Parke county jails. At a cost of $35 per inmate per day, that adds $735 a day to the county’s bill.

“The situation isn’t going to get any better,” Ewing said of the chronic overcrowding. “We don’t hold minor offenders anymore. We have more serious offenders that we can’t put out on the streets.”

The jail has been deemed overcrowded for several years, meaning that there are not enough beds for the number of inmates that are booked in. The county has been under a court mandate since 2002 to limit the jail population to 268 because of a class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU more than a decade ago. Last year, the ACLU filed suit alleging breach of contract.

Since then, the sheriff and commissioners have met with other county officials to work on a remedy. The quick fix was to house inmates in other nearby jails and pay the $35 per inmate per day fee.

The long-term fix is taking a lot longer to pull together.

Room for growth

Ewing has formed a jail study committee to look at the options — including building a newer larger jail, or adding on to the existing jail — and the county council has been asked to consider funding for a professional jail study.

County Council President Kathy Miller told the Tribune-Star that the council is in the middle of its budget creation process for 2015, and funding for the jail study is also being considered by a special projects committee. But whether the funding will be approved this year or next year is not clear, she said.

Ewing said he is eager to get going on the jail study, to determine how best to remedy the overcrowding and how to pay for it. But he said he is also concerned that county officials will build a new jail that has no room for growth in inmate population, as was the case in 1980.

Referring to newspaper coverage of the issue about 35 years ago, Ewing said that the current jail was originally built to house 86 inmates. However, at the time, the weekend jail population ran around 100 inmates. When each cell was double-bunked, that did add another 86 beds to the facility for a total of 172 beds. However, the inmate count was averaging 210 people, so an additional 50 beds were needed. Another addition was built on to bring the jail to its current point of 268 beds.

At the time the current ACLU lawsuit was filed in August 2013, the jail census was around 305 inmates.

“I don’t need another 50 beds. I need a facility that can meet future needs,” Ewing said.

A staffing analysis of the facility showed that with the current configuration of the jail, an additional 26.5 correctional officers are needed to adequately staff the building as it is.

“No one wants to spend a dime on prisoners. I get it,” Ewing said. “However, there are standards that must be met.

Not a hotel

The sheriff said he is frustrated when he hears people refer to the jail as a hotel where the inmates live better than some law-abiding citizens. Anyone who has been inside the jail quickly realizes it is not pleasant to live in such close proximity to so many people who can’t abide by the law.

“We’re not in the hotel business. We caution people that we are not ‘leaving the light on for you’ as one motel chain likes to put it,” he said.

With the daily inmate count limited to 268, Ewing said, there must be a “cushion” of 15 to 20 spots left open in case there is an abundance of arrests made.

Alternatives to jail

In addition to housing inmates at other county jails, the sheriff has worked with the community corrections program to get some indigent inmates released on GPS monitoring.

Bill Watson of Community Corrections said that for inmates who meet the non-violent criteria of the program, the sheriff’s department pays the fee to get the indigent inmate hooked up for monitoring. In return, the inmate must agree to do four hours of work, five days a week for the county. The inmates are assigned to work with the highway department or with a cleanup crew.

“They agree to do it,” Watson said, “and they still must do job searches with the goal of getting a job and then paying for their own in-home detention costs.”

The cost is cheaper for the GPS monitoring than for housing an inmate out-of-county, Watson said, especially because many people in the program are in jail because of drug- or alcohol-related offenses. Those people are seen daily by law enforcement and they receive daily drug and alcohol screens to make sure they are complying. Because those people also live at their own homes, the program saves the county the expense of food and medical care.

“We have some who are successful on it and some who aren’t,” Watson said. “It’s just like regular home detention, except the sheriff pays for it, and they work for the county. We have had several move over to regular home detention and get jobs.”

ACLU still skeptical

All of those efforts are commendable, Falk said, but getting the county to remedy the problem is the goal.

Along with overcrowding, the lawsuit claims that inmates are not being offered at least three hours a week of recreation outside their immediate cell areas. That issue was also included in the 2002 settlement of the lawsuit.

While he receives a daily report of inmate numbers, Falk told the Tribune-Star, he plans to look into the recreation time issue, and he plans to take depositions about the claims that some inmates are still sleeping on the floor because of overcrowding within some cell units.

“The census reports look good, but we need to find out about the overcrowded units and recreation time for the inmates,” Falk said.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.


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