TERRE HAUTE —
Too many inmates. Not enough beds.
Overcrowding at the Vigo County Jail has been an ongoing problem since before the facility was first constructed in 1980, and even since an expansion project added inmate capacity.
Now, Sheriff Greg Ewing and the Vigo County Commissioners are faced with a class action complaint for breach of contract for not complying with a 2002 agreement that the jail population is not exceed 268 inmates, except for short-term emergency situations.
The complaint — filed Aug. 15 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana as representative of an inmate — seeks to force the county to comply with the inmate census cap imposed in the 2002 agreement.
ACLU Attorney Ken Falk said he hopes to meet with Vigo County officials in the near future to work out a solution to the overcrowding. Actions taken by the sheriff and county officials since the lawsuit was filed have been encouraging, he said.
“I think they should be commended,” Falk said Friday. “Immediately after the complaint was filed, they took action to relocate some of the inmates and relieve the overcrowding. I think that response was appropriate.”
But it is not a long-term solution, and finding a way to make sure every inmate has a bed is now a focus for those county offices involved in the local criminal justice system.
No room at the inn
When Sheriff Ewing took office in January 2011, he knew the county jail had the inmate cap of 268. He also knew that prior sheriffs had struggled to stay below that number for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to:
• The methamphetamine “epidemic” in the Wabash Valley.
• The closure of state mental health hospitals and some local treatment facilities.
• The closure of some community drug treatment programs.
• The growth of the county court system and its caseload.
• The time lag for resolution of criminal cases.
In fact, the state jail inspections reports in 2009, 2010, and 2011 each recorded the total inmate count at above the cap.
The inmate census was 295 on the July 2009 inspection day. It was 279 in September 2010, and 280 in September 2011. The October 2012 inmate count was 293.
The most recent jail inspection, conducted Sept. 20, has not been made public, but Sheriff Ewing said the inmate count was 260 on that day.
Attorney Falk told the Tribune-Star on Friday that he has been contacted repeatedly by many people in past years complaining about the overcrowded state of the Vigo County Jail. Those contacts not only include inmates, he said, but also attorneys who were reporting that the overcrowding had gotten out of hand.
Falk was the attorney who filed the original class action complaint against the county in March 2000. That case was resolved in February 2002 with a settlement agreement that set the 268 cap, along with a minimum of three hours per week of recreation outside of the cell areas. The jail facility had been expanded and modified to increase the facility’s capacity and address other conditions in the jail.
He said he has been involved in 15 or more cases of jail overcrowding in various Indiana counties, and those cases have been resolved either through jail expansion and new building projects, or by setting a population cap. Before filing the recent Vigo County complaint, Falk said he has only had to resume action against one other county.
He said he hopes to meet with county officials soon to work on a resolution for the overcrowding.
Working on it
Vigo County Commissioner Mike Ciolli said he also hopes to resolve the complaint soon.
“Everyone knows we are housing inmates elsewhere,” Ciolli said of Ewing’s action to transfer 40 inmates to the Knox County Jail, which had room to house the inmates at a state-imposed fee of $35 per inmate per day.
“We’re trying to get eligible inmates moved over to the community corrections program, the low level and non-violent offenders,” Ciolli said. “We’re meeting next week to talk more about it.”
County attorney Michael Wright said the commissioners and county council are well aware of the expense of housing inmates at other out-of-county facilities.
Sheriff Ewing has already received a bill of $15,470 from Knox County for the inmates houses so far, and that was paid Sept. 13.
As of Thursday, 22 Vigo inmates remained in the Knox County Jail. As space opens up in his own jail, inmates are being brought back to Vigo County, the sheriff said.
County Council president Bill Thomas said county officials have had a lot of discussion about the jail situation.
“As far as the immediate need to relieve the overcrowding, we’ve all talked and are trying to work out some kind of home detention project that could reduce the jail population to the 230s or 240s,” Thomas said. That project would come through an expansion of the community corrections program.
But also, the commissioners are looking for a site to build a new jail, he said.
“It’s going to be tough, and that’s the problem,” Thomas said of a long-term solution. “Everything that comes up, it’s about money.”
Commissioner Ciolli agreed that a building project is one option.
“It we ever did build a new jail, I would think you’d want to build larger than you need,” he said, noting that the Knox County Jail is a newer facility built larger than needed, partly to house inmates for overcrowded jails.
County attorney Wright said that some type of jail expansion project is likely.
“I think that is just part of the conversation that has to take place,” he said, “as far as the best long-term solution.”
In the short term
County officials are now trying to work out the community corrections option as more cost effective than housing inmates in another county.
The cost comparison is about $7 for electronic monitoring of an offender who is on house arrest, as opposed to the $35 per day out-of-county housing. But electronic monitoring is possible for only some of the inmates.
“Everyone is conscious of the public safety aspect of it,” Wright said.
Bill Watson, director of Vigo County Community Corrections, said he is now looking into a cellular home monitoring system that could be utilized in addition to the current GPS monitoring system that tracks offenders on work release and in-home detention.
There are now vacancies in the community corrections program, he said, but offenders must be evaluated for appropriate placement. And even some of those who qualify cannot afford to pay for the hookup and monitoring of the system.
The work release cap is 135 participants, he said, and the program is currently around 90 participants. The home detention program had about 95 offenders, as of Friday, but had capacity for about 120 people with the existing staffing to monitor the participants.
Sheriff Ewing points out that when he took office in January 2011, he emphasized use of the community corrections program to alleviate some of the jail’s overcrowding.
Unfortunately, some of the inmates who transferred into the program were unable to follow the rules, and therefore violated their placement and ended up back in the jail.
Vigo County Prosecutor Terry Modesitt emphasized that only non-violent offenders should be moved into community corrections.
“We’re trying the best we can to put the less serious offenders in community corrections and to speed the cases along as much as possible,” Modesitt said. “It’s kind of frustrating because as the prosecutors and police do a better job of making arrests, there is no room in the jail. We need a bigger jail, and I think everybody agrees to that.”
Professionals who evaluate the Vigo County Jail certainly do agree that a different jail facility is needed.
Not the perfect design
The Vigo County Jail as it is now is very labor intensive, said state jail inspector Kenneth J. Whipker.
The jail inspection reports for the past three years each contain a remark that the jail is understaffed for its 268 capacity and total jail operations. A recommendation has been made each year to conduct a National Institute of Corrections staffing analysis to see which posts within the jail needed to be manned around-the-clock, and assess other staffing needs.
Sheriff Ewing said that the NIC analysis is in the works to examine staffing of the jail. A jail population study is also being considered through the National Institute of Justice to project long-range growth of the inmate population.
Jail overcrowding has a far-reaching effect for the facility, Whipker said. When a jail exceeds 80 percent of its capacity, the staff loses the ability to properly classify and segregate the inmates. At that point, it’s a matter of finding a bed for each person that comes in.
That then changes the conditions of confinement where low-level offenders may be housed with violent offenders. The recreation needs cannot be met, and telephone time for inmates is limited due to staffing.
The design of the current jail causes some of the staffing problems, he said.
The original jail, built in 1980 to house only 86 inmates, was built as a “range” with cells arranged in a long corridor style. The additions to the jail were built as pods, but they are constructed in a way that requires separate controls and staff.
When new facilities are constructed, Whipker said, staffing needs must be considered because the construction cost will eventually be paid off, but the staffing costs never go away.
Cleanliness is next to the mop
As far as the cleanliness of the jail, which was an issue brought up in the current lawsuit, Whipker said that in his past inspections of the Vigo County Jail, he has found it to be a clean facility.
Indiana’s County Jail Standards, which are outlined in Indiana Administrative Code 210, Article 3, state that “Inmates shall have the responsibility for maintaining their own cells and living areas in a safe and sanitary condition. Necessary cleaning equipment and materials shall be provided to inmates daily and as needed.”
Each jail inspection report from 2009 through 2012 notes that cleaning equipment are available to the inmates on a daily basis. “Noted in cell/day areas on day of inspection,” the report states.
The report also notes that:
• Regular insect and rodent inspections are made weekly.
• A licensed exterminator is contracted.
• The board of health regularly inspects the jail.
Sheriff Ewing said he is particularly irked by allegations that the overcrowding has caused the jail cells to be dirty, with insects and black mold.
“We had the jail inspector in here last Friday,” he said. “He noted that cleaning supplies were present in the cell blocks. The general areas that we [jail staff] care for were clean and in repair. The board of health came in here on Monday and reported that jail is clean and sanitary. The commissioners had an air-quality test done on the mold issue. The results showed the air in here is better than outside.
“We’ve done a lot of things [since the recent complaint] to validate ourselves,” Ewing said. “But the one thing that really upset me was that we were filthy. We work hard to keep this building clean.”
A Sept. 23 letter to jail commander Charles Funk from the Vigo County Health Department states that the living/sleeping quarters and the bathroom/shower quarters were both deemed “clean and sanitary.”
The letter by Travella Myers, environmental health supervisor, states “It is the opinion of the Vigo County Health Department that the living conditions at the Vigo County Jail are safe and sanitary for those residing, visiting, or working there.”
Myers told the Tribune-Star that the jail facility is inspected whenever a complaint is filed with the health department. However, no complaints have been filed for a couple of years, she said. A regular inspection is conducted annually, she said, noting that the recent inspection turned up “no concerns” in any areas.
As for the air quality and mold, the commissioners recently contracted Micro Air Inc. of Indianapolis for mold testing and analytical services.
The testing for airborne mold spore samples in the book-in shower area, second floor women’s officer restroom, and second corridor outside C-block all showed results that were far lower than an outside air sample. A lift tape sample taken from the surface of the book-in shower also showed no mold detected.
Based on the predominant mold spores identified, the report states, the outdoor air is the primary influence on the indoor airborne mold spores, and the concentration found on the day of testing were not considered to be at a level of concern at that time.
No room to play
Recreation opportunities are another area of concern raised in the ACLU complaint.
“We’re hit and miss on it,” Ewing said of recreation opportunities for inmates.
The 2002 settlement agreement called for at least three hours per week of recreation for all inmates.
“It’s a very labor intensive thing to do,” Ewing said of recreation. “We have now assigned a person to get recreation rolling.”
One issue that has come up, he said, is that at some times when recreation is offered, inmates refuse to go because they are sleeping. Even if it is 10 a.m. on a weekday.
“We’ve had several who refused to get out of bed to go to rec, so now we have a better tracking system on who is declining,” Ewing said.
The recreation area of the jail has been modified in recent years with the addition of a roof to keep out the weather. That has allowed for more recreation time, he said, and it helped to keep dampness from infiltrating areas where mold was a past problem.
As for the building itself, Ewing said he has researched past newspaper articles about the construction of the jail.
“When it was being built in 1980, Andy Atelski said that it wasn’t big enough,” Ewing said of the sheriff in office at the time. The jail was built for only 86 inmates. At the time, the reported weekend jail population was about 100 prisoners.
Atelski charged that the new facility was “obsolete before it is finished” and requested that a fourth floor be added to the construction.
On July 14, 1996, the Tribune-Star reported that the jail was repeatedly overcrowded.
And on July 11, 2001, the Tribune-Star again reported county officials stating that despite expansion and new construction of inmate pods, “In seven years the county will be faced with another overcrowded jail.”
History, for a third time, is going to repeat itself, Ewing said.
“I get it that nobody wants to build a jail,” Ewing said. “I get it. In general, the public as a whole doesn’t care if the inmates are sleeping on the floor. But there are jail standards to follow.”
Despite the current efforts to fix the overcrowding problems, the sheriff said he sees the resolution focusing on a new jail.
In the past two years, he said he has put more than $1 million into necessary repairs for the roof, air conditioning and air handling units of the jail facility.
“This building is in bad shape,” he said of the poor design and obsolete plumbing. “At what point do you quit throwing money at a bad facility.”
The decision on expansion or building new will likely be made as part of the new settlement.
The complaint filed in August has been assigned to Special Judge Robert Springer, who has also received a motion to certify the case as a class action to represent all inmates of the Vigo County Jail, in addition to the single inmate originally represented in the complaint.
Vigo County attorney Wright said the county has stipulated to the class action certification of the complaint.
Springer has set a hearing in the case for Oct. 28 in Sullivan Superior Court.
In the meantime, Wright said, county officials are exploring their options for a solution to the overcrowding. In the meantime, the county will continue to accrue $35 per day per inmate charges for those housed out-of-county when the jail approaches the 268 cap.
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.