FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – While he commended county officials for their efforts thus far, a federal judge wants to see more solid funding, staffing and design plans for a to-be-built Allen County Jail.
The judge also wants to see a push for more staffing at the current jail.
“I’m not trying to immerse myself into a process where I shouldn’t immerse myself,” said U.S. District Court Judge Damon R. Leichty during a hearing Friday attended by various Allen County officials to update the status of a new jail. “Still, this is something that’s been on the radar for a year.”
It was a far cry from a year ago when Leichty blasted county officials during a hearing for letting the current jail essentially rot into conditions that made housing inmates there inhumane.
Leichty ruled in March 2022 that conditions at the Allen County Jail violated at least two constitutional amendments.
That ruling, which was part of a class-action lawsuit brought on by the ACLU on behalf of inmates and against Allen County Commissioners and the county sheriff, has sparked plans for a new jail.
It has also led to status hearings in front of Leichty to show what progress has been made at the current jail as well as progress on the new jail.
During Friday’s hearing, county officials did not have much to offer on how the new jail will be funded.
That’s because Allen County Council is set to hear public opinion on proposed income taxes later next week and possibly vote on those proposals on June 15.
“Hopefully, after June 7, we’ll have more information,” attorney Ted Storer, who represents the county, told Leichty.
Bonding for the new jail, to be built in the 2900 block of Meyer Road, could amount to between $250 million to $275 million, but that bonding amount could be reduced if the county uses the cash it has on hand. There’s about $50 million in county coffers and according to Allen County officials, county commissioners could tap into about $25 million.
Still, there was no definitive plans in place during Friday’s hearing.
County officials also did not have much to offer on staffing.
The county is set to hire an additional five confinement officers, bringing the total up to 151, and want to add another five more in the near future. With 155 confinement officers, the current jail will be able to offer four hours of recreation a week for inmates compared to the three hours they currently receive.
“We’re not where we want to be or where we want to be, but we’re making progress,” county attorney John Feighner told Leichty.
Getting people to take the confinement officer positions, though, have been a challenge, Feighner added.
While the county has done better at retaining confinement officers, several still get “poached” by other law enforcement departments from time to time since the job itself is usually a precursor to someone becoming a police officer, according to Feighner.
The application process is lengthy but county officials have streamlined it to be completed in roughly two weeks, Feighner said, and the pay is more than other county jails throughout Indiana.
Leichty also wanted to hear more about staffing plans for the new jail, and voiced concern that if there is trouble recruiting confinement officers now, how will that change in four years when the new jail is set to open.
Preliminary plans for the jail show that it will likely be one story tall and spread out. That will allow officials to staff the jail with more safety in mind – officers will have more sightlines on inmates and won’t have the trouble of taking inmates up various levels of the facility like they do now.
While he’s at least heard about preliminary plans, Leichty also wanted more finalized design plans at Friday’s hearing.
Those are still being worked on, officials said, though they noted the county owns the land where the jail will be built. They also said the board of zoning appeals okayed the jail going on that plat of land.
A representative of the activist group Help Not Handcuffs also spoke during Friday’s hearing and decried what the group felt was a lack of transparency and openness from county officials.
“People sitting out here, it’s their money on the line,” Diana C. Bauer of Bauer Legal in Fort Wayne.
She said the organization questions whether county officials offer up enough time at public hearings for people to voice their opinions on the jail as well as keeping a website designed to track progress at the jail updated.
County officials said during Friday’s hearing they have plans to update the website more regularly and said commissioners have met with various groups about the jail, have gone out into the neighborhood where the jail will be built and are always looking for ways to let the public voice opinions.
At the end of the hearing, Leichty set Sept. 29 as the next date where officials are expected to update progress on the jail.
By then, he wants a firm funding plan in place, design plans finalized and plans to beef up staffing at the current jail as well as a plan for staffing at the new jail.
Leichty told county officials those were their “homework assignments,” and asked them to all be good students.
“I want to grade you with A’s, not C-pluses,” he said.