FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — A month ago, a federal judge ordered immediate changes at the Allen County Jail to address severe overcrowding.
U.S. District Court Judge Damon R. Leichty’s ruling in a class action lawsuit filed by inmates ordered the Allen County Sheriff and the Allen County Commissioner to reduce the jail population to 732 inmates. The suit claimed the jail was “chronically and seriously overcrowded” and causing “irreparable harm” to inmates.
As the county works to pare down the population, including utilizing the Community Corrections Residential Services program and reducing the number of federal prisoners, among other measures, WANE 15 has learned the jail has an entire floor that is completely uninhabited.
The fourth floor of the Allen County Jail has never been finished. Here’s what it looks like:
So with overcrowding issues, and while county officials discuss the possibility of building a new $200 million jail outside of downtown Fort Wayne, why not finish the floor?
Well, it simply wouldn’t make much sense, it turns out.
Finishing the unfinished fourth floor would cost nearly $6 million, according to a Jail Feasibility Study published on the Allen County Commissioners’ website. Even if the county were to shell out that money, Jail Commander David Butler said the floor could realistically only house 58 inmates.
That would do little to address the inmate population issues.
The jail, originally built in 1981, had several additions, the last one in 2004, Butler said. For budgetary reasons, the fourth floor was never finished, but has some plumbing and studs.
So what’s the plan for the fourth floor? Right now, it will serve as an inmate property room, which is currently on the first floor in an indoor recreation room. That room needs freed up to comply with the federal judge’s orders to allow inmates recreation three times a week for one hour at a time (even though five hours a week is the ideal).
During COVID, recreation was halted in an outdoor caged basketball area, due to staffing limitations and the inability to completely clean the area in between scheduled outdoor rec.
Now, providing recreation for 800 inmates will require that outdoor basketball area and an indoor recreation room, so the inmate property that inhabits the room must be moved. The jail holds an inmate’s property and those sent to state prisons for 60 days, Butler said.
ADRESSING THE JAIL POPULATION AND CONDITIONS
So what are county officials going to do to lower the inmate population? Members of the Allen County criminal justice system – judges, county commissioners, county council members and the sheriff – have been meeting behind closed doors to brainstorm and plan ways to reduce inmate numbers by mid-May. Leichty ordered the jail have a population of no more than 732 inmates by then.
“A jail is overcrowded long before every bed is filled,” Leichty wrote in his 32-page opinion. “This is because there must be enough beds in the proper cell locations so that prisoners can be adequately classified and separated.”
He continued: “Once the count starts to exceed the 80% level, properly classifying and placing inmates with like inmates becomes more difficult and potentially dangerous for both inmates and staff, and you end up placing maximum security inmates among minimum security inmates, causing a possible volatile situation.”
Leichty believes that there is a direct correlation between recreation and a reduction in violence. Forty inmates were hospitalized in 2020 because of “violence between prisoners, with more being treated in the jail without hospitalizations,” he wrote in his opinion.
Butler and Assistant Jail Commander Mark Sickafoose aren’t sure what kind of machinery or recreation will be offered to inmates once the inmate property room is cleared for exercise. Too often there are injuries during a basketball game, for instance, so imagine what might happen if gym equipment is set up, they said.
The jail commanders said they would study what other jails offer in order to make a good decision.
But with the population holding steady and most likely to go up during the summer months, any provisions the jail and Sheriff David Gladieux make still won’t impact the number of prisoners.
This past weekend, 57 people were booked into Allen County Jail, all but 11 on misdemeanor charges like public intoxication or drug charges, resisting law enforcement, or driving while suspended. Seven were booked on theft or conversion, Indiana’s version of shoplifting.
By Monday, the jail’s population swelled to more than 800 inmates.
Of that total population, more than 500 people are awaiting trial, various hearings and/or sentencing.
Some of them can’t afford bail, the commanders said.
In the last 20 years, the average length of stay for inmates has increased, according to data from the Feasibility Study, adding to the problem of overcrowding. In 2000, the average length of stay was about 12 days; now it’s 22 days. Gladieux said it’s more like 30 days.
To add to those increasing numbers is the increasing local population. The study said a county typically incarcerates 0.4% of its population. In 2000, the county’s population was 333,000; now it’s 381,000. The population will increase to the point where experts say the county needs a 1,500 bed jail, something which county officials are preparing for.
With a new jail design, probably a POD design, there will fewer staff needed and it will be safer for inmates and confinement guards, the commanders said.
But the May 15 deadline is looming. Last week, Gladieux said he nearly got the numbers down to 732. The state took twice the number of sentenced inmates at 28 and 15 federal inmates were shipped off.
“Then the weekend hit,” the sheriff said.
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