When federal judge Damon R. Leichty rendered his opinion March 31 on a lawsuit against Allen County and the treatment of its inmates, one of the things that bothered him most were the “boats.”

Boats are the plastic shells in which inmates make their bed when no cell beds are available.

Leichty’s disapproval is included several times in the 32-page report, but on one page he becomes illustrative.

“Prisoners who are forced to sleep on cell floors because of overcrowding will have to be stepped over when cellmates use the toilet and may have their heads close to the toilet,” Leichty wrote. “Prisoners on the floor are stepped on, kicked and fallen on and have objects dropped on them by other prisoners.

“All this can cause violent reactions. It is disgusting to sleep with one’s head next to a toilet being used by other persons,” he continued.

Plastic shells called “boats” are used as beds at the Allen County Jail when overcrowding forces more inmates in blocks because of inmate classifications.

Tuesday, the plaintiffs in a case filed in January 2020 by inmates and the Indiana ACLU filed another report. The ACLU’s Kenneth Falk and Stevie Pactor claimed in the new report that the average jail population has risen from July 12 through Aug 16, and is rising “gradually but steadily.” The population maintained during the first portion of the report was around 680, then crept up to 688 and finally to 705 on Aug. 16.

This rise occurred even with the removal of federal inmates that used to number between 30 to 35.

The ACLU found disconcerting – their word – “the continuing rise of prisoners who do not have beds and who are provided boats.”

On July 14, two inmates were sleeping in boats; by Aug. 16, the boat number was 26.

The issue will likely come up during Thursday status hearing in U.S. District Court between the county and Leichty.

Deputy Chief David Butler, the Allen County jail commander, has noted in the past that the boat number has been upwards of 150 inmates. That was when the population hovered at 800 or higher and was the result of separating inmates according to classification.

The sheriff’s training ground was chosen by Allen County Commissioners as the site for the new jail. However, the commissioners say the choice is not set in stone, but chosen to satisfy a federal judge’s mandate.

“We don’t control the number of number of people getting arrested or sentenced to the jail,” Capt. Steve Stone, public information officer for the Allen County Sheriff, said Tuesday. “We’re doing everything we can to keep the population down at our end.”

At the first status hearing on June 16, Leichty commended the sheriff for taking steps to reduce the inmate population and saved his criticism for the Allen County Commissioners, blaming the county’s indifference to the jail’s inhumane conditions which threatened the safety not only of the inmates, but the confinement officers.

Thursday, the commissioners will produce a long-term plan showing steps towards either renovating the current jail downtown, deemed outdated and semi-dilapidated, or constructing a new one.

The commissioners have done what they were told to do – identified a location for the jail or jail complex, hired a construction manager, hired Elevatus Architecture to design a new jail and contracted with Baker Tilly municipal advisors in Indianapolis to come up with ways to finance the new jail which could cost between $300 and $350 million. Last week, the Allen County Council took its first public step in making the financing decision at its monthly meeting.

On July 19, three city council members – Sharon Tucker, Glynn Hines and Michelle Chambers – held a rally on Paulding Road in opposition to locating the new jail at the Allen County Sheriff’s training facility nearby.

Opposition groups including three city council members have blasted the commissioners for choosing the Allen County Sheriff’s training ground at Adams Center and Paulding roads. They say it’s insulting the commissioners would designate ground on the city’s southeast side, a heavily Black and brown community, sending the wrong message to its residents and school children at Prince Chapman Academy and Southwick. With a jail within viewing distance of several schools, it would only reinforce the school-to-prison pipeline narrative.

Monday, Mayor Tom Henry weighed in on the debate with a letter. Henry said the county needs a “new state of the art facility” that would be comprehensive and restorative, addressing mental health, addiction and life skills as well as incarceration.”

Henry called for a “truly transparent discussion” with Allen County officials, but said it’s the county, not the city to make other decisions. That said, it’s no secret city officials would like to see the jail gone from downtown where revitalization efforts have brought about new condos, apartments, restaurants, offices, hotels and shops.

The status hearing begins at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the downtown federal courthouse.