TERRE HAUTE —
Allegations that the living conditions in the Vigo County Jail are inhumane are unfounded, county attorney Michael Wright said Wednesday in response to a class-action complaint filed against the Vigo County Sheriff and County Commissioners.
“I spend enough time there to know it’s a very well-kept jail,” Wright told the Tribune-Star about inmate allegations that the building has a black mold and insect problem, in addition to overcrowding issues.
Wright said the county commissioners have not discussed the class-action complaint filed late last week by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. But he said he has talked with Ken Falk, the ACLU attorney for the inmate who filed suit.
“I think that what Ken wants to see is some productive solutions, and that’s what we are interested in providing,” Wright said of the sheriff and commissioners, and pointing out that an inmate transfer to Knox County has temporarily relieved the overcrowding.
Sheriff Greg Ewing on Tuesday night arranged for the transfer of 45 inmates from the Vigo County Jail to be temporarily housed in the Knox County Jail as a way to relieve overcrowding. That transfer took the inmate census to 262. The jail’s capacity is set at 268 inmates as the result of a 2000 class-action lawsuit that also alleged overcrowding.
The county must pay a $35 per inmate per day cost for the 45 individuals housed in Knox County, which amounts to $1,575 per day, and has a 30-day cost of $47,250 per month. The Federal Correctional Complex at Terre Haute assisted in the transfer of the inmates by providing a bus and driver, which allowed for the smooth transition to Knox County.
Ewing thanked Knox County Sheriff Mike Morris for agreeing to help with the overcrowding. The Knox County jail is a modern facility constructed in the mid-2000s, and it has ample space to absorb the Vigo County inmates.
“It is very frustrating that we had to make this emergency move, but I cannot help it,” Ewing said. “Our facility is full, and we don’t have inmates like Otis, the town drunk,” the sheriff said, referencing the nonviolent character on television’s “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Ewing said he also contacted the Indiana Department of Correction and arranged for the transfer of 11 inmates already sentenced to prison time to be taken to the Reception and Diagnostic Center at Plainfield for admission into the state prison system.
That brought the jail population to about 250, he said Wednesday, noting that the population can vary hour to hour.
Vigo County has been given priority status with the DOC because of its overcrowding issue, Ewing said, and that means that once an inmate it sentenced to prison, the person will be transferred immediately.
Ewing also told the Tribune-Star that the jail does not have a black mold problem. In 2009, there was a mold problem because of an open outdoor recreation area. However, a roof was constructed to keep out precipitation, and that resolved the issue.
The ACLU complaint also claims that the jail staff is not providing three hours of weekly recreation time per inmate as required by the settlement of the 2000 lawsuit.
Ewing said that limited jail staffing has been an issue in making sure that inmates receive recreation time away from their cells.
“When we are in an overcrowded position, it’s taxing on the entire facility,” Ewing said. “We only have 47 jail officers, but when we are at capacity, and then 30 more people are added to the jail, the staffing doesn’t change.”
The jail inspection report does note that the jail is understaffed for the rated capacity and total jail operations. A staffing analysis was recommended, the report states, noting that the same recommendation was made in 2010.
The sheriff also noted that the jail inmates are provided with mops, buckets and cleaning supplies to keep their cell areas clean.
“They need to be responsible for cleaning their living area,” he said, noting that despite the ACLU’s claim of poor maintenance of the jail facility, an October inspection report by the DOC found the jail has cleaning equipment available to inmates on a daily basis. There is a licensed exterminator contract, the inspection report states, and the county board of health has inspected the jail semiannually. Each inmate is also given an opportunity to shower at least three times every seven days.
Also, Ewing maintained, that in a county of about 106,000 residents, Vigo County’s jail has the inmate capacity of a county one-third its size.
And even though the transfer of inmates has reduced the census to below the 268 mark, Ewing said that count could be exceeded again from overnight arrests. From midnight Tuesday to early Wednesday, about 35 people were booked into the jail. Of those, about half were released either by bonding out or by being released on their own recognizance once they make a court appearance.
Ewing said he has been working with the county judges on the overcrowding issue, but notes that many of the people housed in the jail are violent offenders who need to be behind bars.
“As the sheriff of this county, I am the keeper of the inmates, but I’m not ordering people in here,” he said. “And, it is difficult for a judge to say that in the interest of public safety, I can’t let these people out.”
He also noted that moving some inmates who qualify into the community corrections program may be another way to ease overcrowding. However, many offenders do not have the money to pay for the corrections program.
Building a new jail is a costly option that the county may have to consider, he noted. With modern technology allowing for video transmission of court proceedings, jails can be located some distance away from the courthouse. Ewing said that the Knox County Jail may be able to transmit real-time video court for the Vigo inmates being housed there.
“With today’s technology, a jail can be anywhere,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be next to the courthouse.”
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.