News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 23, 2013

EDITORIAL: Tough, tedious, important work ahead for jail group

The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — “What is a committee?” Mark Twain once asked. “A group of the unwilling, picked from the unfit, to do the unnecessary.”

With apologies to the master humorist, that sarcasm doesn’t apply to a committee that Vigo County Sheriff Greg Ewing has recruited to study the whys and wherefores of our county’s jail situation — the physical and logistical shortcomings of the current structure; the changing demands of incarceration caused by shifting crime trends and societal priorities; the use of technologies, such as cell phone-based in-home detention; and the inescapable, undeniable conclusion that a new, modern jail is demanded of this county’s leaders and citizens as soon as practicable.

Sorry, Mr. Twain, but finding the answers to those perplexing and vital issues in this case is quite necessary. And these committee members are not unwilling to serve — and they are even farther from being unfit to serve.

The committee Ewing has assembled represents many areas of responsibility, experience and expertise that can contribute to offering thoughtful solutions so a new jail can serve better than the current 40-something jail. The committee comprises key county governmental officials, the sheriff and jail staff, a judge, the county prosecutor, the county attorney and the community corrections director. The committee might also benefit from having a senior judge, an ISU criminology scholar and federal and state prison representatives, but if those are not added as members — too many on a committee can become unwieldy — they can be called to some meetings as expert resources.

The current pressure for changes at Vigo’s jail is prompted by a American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, filed in August, that calls the sheriff and county to task because the jail population had exceeded the magic number of 268. That threshold resulted from a 2002 settlement of an earlier ACLU lawsuit. Immediately after the latest suit, Ewing took quick and decisive action in transferring enough inmates to the Knox County Jail — at $35 per day, per inmate — to get the jail under 268. Ewing and his staff also seem to have answered concerns, founded or unfounded, that the jail was not clean enough or that it didn’t allow enough hours of recreation for inmates.

But even without the ACLU suits, Vigo County would have needed to drastically improve its jail, sooner or later. Those being jailed are usually not our leading citizens, but civility demands that they be housed humanely, securely (both for protection from each other and for protection of jail staff) and with adequate space per person to avoid overcrowding.  

And, as the committee has been told, the need for a higher jail capacity is going to become more crucial soon as a flood of class-D felons, no longer to be housed in state prisons, hits county jails. Too, as Vigo Chief Deputy Clark Cottom has said, some 4,000 unserved warrants sit idle, as the department balances not exceeding jail capacity with enforcing the law.

And so, an experienced and knowledgeable prison consultant, retired regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons David R. Reardin, believes a new Vigo jail should have 20 to 30 percent more capacity than the current one — which would presumably raise the maximum jail population to about 350.

Of course, the work of this committee calls for seeing the unseen, knowing the unknown and thinking the unthinkable so that it all still looks good 20, 30 or 40 years into the future. That is a large task, but Sheriff Ewing and his committee are making steady progress.

“There is no monument dedicated to the memory of a committee.” So wrote an author, humorist and librarian named Lester J. Pourciau.

But if the Ewing committee can do what is being asked of it, it deserves a monument — one prominently displayed in what then would be Vigo County’s new jail.