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March 30, 2014

EDITORIAL: New jail is right approach

Let experts study issue to be sure

TERRE HAUTE — It’s prudent that Vigo County’s governmental officials are reluctant to commit money toward an expert study of how to fix problems at our county jail — which is beset with inmate overcrowding, inefficient design, irreparable equipment and few good options for expanding.

As much as $75,000 to pay for a study is nothing to sneeze at.

But on this issue, it’s time to get with it. Fully five months after Sheriff Greg Ewing formed a committee to study the jail, it seems this is all the farther the process has come. That’s troubling, because with each passing day the seriousness of the problem worsens.

Yes, the county is well-advised to consult with the American Civil Liberties Union, whose recent lawsuit against Vigo’s sheriff and other elected leaders brought to a head a need that had been largely ignored for years.

The current jail is a monument to 30-year-old mistakes that are perpetuated by further delay. When replacement parts cannot be found to repair 70 toilets in the jail, as Ewing reported a few days ago to the Vigo County Council and commissioners, that should be a clear message that bold and quick action is necessary.

Somehow, renovating the old jail continues to be an option on the table, or so says at least one of the county commissioners.

It shouldn’t be. County leaders should proceed with the view that as quickly as possible they should abandon the old jail, opened in the early 1980s, and quit wasting money on it.

How could the existing jail expand? Up? East? West? South? North? Streets and highways, the courthouse and a county-city parking lot are in the way. Adding stories seems structurally questionable, perhaps impossible.

Land for a new jail can be found up or down Third Street or west on First or Second streets. That would still put it close to the courthouse, City Hall and other governmental offices and corrections areas.

Advocating a new jail is not a matter of approaching the matter with a closed mind. Instead, it’s a matter of having as a working hypothesis that a new jail is necessary, and that only strong contrary evidence could prove the hypothesis wrong.

That evidence, either way, presumably would arise from a jail study by outside experts.

The ACLU lawsuit, filed in August, called 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. In quick response, Ewing reduced capacity to 268 by shipping out inmates to other county jails — at the cost of $35 per day.

But satisfying the ACLU should not be the county’s only goal or even the top goal. That top goal should be for Vigo County to have the best jail possible, not just one that meets the ACLU maximum capacity.

It is not coddling criminals to house them humanely, securely and with adequate space per person to avoid overcrowding in a technologically advanced jail. Only a new facility offers the real and present opportunity to significantly improve the quality of jail management and efficiency for staff, other police, attorneys and inmates’ families.

Having a first-rate jail is, in fact, a social responsibility that has to be borne by the county’s taxpayers — and it is something in which the county can take pride. Doing criminal justice right is a very good thing.

Cobbling onto the existing jail is just making do for a little while. Taking the bold — and, yes, costly — action of moving quickly ahead on building a new jail is what Vigo County’s citizens need from their leaders.

Ewing was absolutely correct when he told county officials: “For three decades, we haven’t done it right, and to be honest with you, we’ve wasted money.”

It’s time — more than 30 years later — to do it right.

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