The exasperation was palpable in Vigo County Sheriff Greg Ewing’s words a few days ago.
His topic was how he is dealing with a lawsuit alleging that the jail he supervises is overcrowded, dirty and lacking in inmate recreation.
Ewing’s response is understandable because he finds himself trying to deal affirmatively in an overwhelmingly negative situation whose roots lie 40 years in the past when the county, for ancient reasons, built a bad jail — too small, poorly designed, little option for expansion.
You get what you pay for, and Vigo County is now dealing with that in a jail with significant shortcomings.
Those shortcomings are magnified by the modern demands of incarceration, which Tribune-Star reporter Lisa Trigg summarized in a Sept. 29 story: lots of meth convicts; closure of mental health and drug treatment centers; rising court caseloads; and the resulting delays in criminal cases.
Neither Ewing nor Vigo County’s current governmental officials created the situation. They are only the latest stewards of it. But they are the ones who, with taxpayers’ support, must work together to solve it.
The lawsuit, which is to be heard late this month in Sullivan Superior Court, is not a pleasant outcome for Ewing or the county, but at least it moves the matter to a hot front burner, where it needs to be.
It also has brought a strong, good faith response from Ewing, who immediately after the lawsuit moved 40 inmates, at $35 per day, to the neighboring Knox County Jail, which had extra capacity.
Ewing is galled by the assertion in the lawsuit that the jail is dirty, moldy and unfit — and he makes a persuasive case that is not the case, supported by findings by the state jail inspector and the Vigo County Health Department. If the contention of an unsanitary jail ever were true, it appears not now to be.
A harder issue is keeping the number of inmates at 268 or below, for all of those issues that contribute to more people being jailed. The county is bound to that number based on a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union in 2002. Jail capacity is an issue that overtaxes the limits of the facility, which the state jail inspector has labeled as understaffed in the last three annual reports.
Several ideas — greater use of community corrections, more home detention, better use of electronic monitoring technology — can contribute to not surpassing the 268 magic number.
But that is not the real answer.
The real answer is to build a new jail to accommodate both current needs and projected need — either a completely new one or an annex to the existing one. We imagine a completely new jail makes more long-run sense.
And that’s what has been lacking over the years that has led to the current scenario: long-run sense.
The decision on building a new jail is not an if or a whether or a when.
It is a now.
And the sooner the County Council and County Commissioners get past the questions and get to the answers, the sooner the failures of the past can be corrected for the future.
Neither the need nor the admittedly sizable expense can be avoided. The need and the expense are the price of providing a fair and humane criminal justice system, which is legally, ethically and morally required of a community. Need and expense will only grow if the county allows valuable time to tick away.
The time to begin planning a new Vigo County jail was yesterday. And now the planning needs to begin in earnest within a very few tomorrows.