FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Funding for a new Allen County Jail was voted down Thursday at the Allen County Council meeting.
The vote, 4-2, isn’t the final chapter in a process that started three and a half years ago when the Indiana ACLU and county inmates sued the county on jail condition they said were inhumane because of understaffing and overcrowding.
Tom Harris, county council president, said there will likely be another vote in 30 days when the council meets again for its monthly meeting. Something will have to be decided, Harris said, before the next status hearing with federal judge Damon R. Leichty on Sept. 29.
After Leichty agreed with the Indiana ACLU and county inmates on March 31, 2022, even going into detail on unsanitary and dangerous conditions, the Allen County Commissioners and the Allen County Sheriff scrambled to meet Leichty’s deadlines.
After deciding that the existing jail downtown at Clinton and Superior streets was too dilapidated and outdated for modern jailing, plans were made to build a new jail.
Commissioners, the county entity in charge of owning, building and maintaining county buildings, quickly assessed properties to find a location for a new jail.
They found the spot – 2911 Meyer Road – and purchased it, getting the appropriate zoning for it in the process.
Elevatus Architecture, author of a 2021 report on the criminal justice system, was chosen this year as the architect for the new jail, commonly known as the largest public project undertaken since perhaps the courthouse built more than 100 years ago.
Leichty was so curious about Allen County’s new jail he asked Cory Miller, Elevatus president, to appear in court in June.
The original project was estimated to cost between $300 and $350 million and one of the council members advocating for a new jail was Ken Fries, former Allen County Sheriff.
“This time build it right,” he said out loud at a few county council meetings.
But Thursday, he criticized the process and voted against it.
He accused the council of misstatements and inaccuracies, but said one thing they could all agree on was “there are too many bad guys running the streets that are getting released that shouldn’t be.”
Fries said he believed that “we need to take a look at the old facility.” He drew applause during his comments that the tax wouldn’t be levied on the property tax because that would take a referendum.
With his statements, he appeared to make an alliance with a vocal and organized group of protesters who regularly come to county meetings and hold rallies on the Courthouse Green.
Help Not Handcuffs has opposed a new jail from the beginning, focusing more on what puts people in jail in the first place. Not satisfied with promises from the Allen County Commissioners that mental health would be addressed in a new facility, they have demanded a voice and not necessarily cared or paid attention to Leichty’s deadlines.
At Thursday’s meeting, members from the coalition interrupted council members when they didn’t like what they heard and shouted their approval at remarks by Fries and Kyle Kerley, who also opposed the current jail financing proposal. The other two dissenting were Bob Armstrong and Josh Hale, in whose district the proposed new jail sits.
New council member Don Wyss voted in favor of creating the LIT along with Harris. Paul Lagemann was absent.
Kerley said he’d had a problem with the process “since the beginning.” From his perspective, he believed the cost per bed was way over what is normally paid in the state where quite a few new jails are being or have been built.
“The rest of the state is paying between $125,000 and $165,000 per bed. We’re being told it’s $250,000,” Kerley said.
Fries said the whole process hadn’t been transparent, although county council and commissioners’ meetings are easily available on social media and there is a time set aside for public comment at both meetings.
Emmanuel Ortiz, Thursday’s spokesman for Help Not Handcuffs, said public forums to discuss jailing and the future of county incarceration would help.
The Jail LIT or local income tax as proposed would allow the county to tax personal income at .2%. Municipalities have a range between .05% and .25% under state law, a tax outside the normal capped tax that allows entities to build correctional or rehabilitative facilities.
It is estimated that the tax would cost an extra $50 tax on an income tax of $100,000 and $100 on $200,000.
Harris said he felt the sheer size of the project and the cost have spooked council members. The original cost estimate at $350,000 has been whittled down to around $285,000. The jail would be built for around 1,100 inmates with five pods, but if one pod were cut, the price could go down to around $267,000. The new jail design is a sprawling, low level project that is easier to secure than a multi-level jail like the existing one where officers and inmates share stairs and elevators.
With $50 million in cash, the county is in good shape to take on such a project
“It’s not an option for us not to do anything,” Harris said. If nothing is done, then the county council could be named in the lawsuit and the judge has asked that Harris be present. The ACLU lawsuit only named the commissioners and the sheriff, but the judge has the authority to include another entity.
Commissioner Richard Beck spoke to the council prior to the vote, with the other two commissioners, Nelson Peters and Therese Brown present. They all left once the vote was taken.
Michael McAlexander, the Allen County Prosecutor, also spoke on behalf of the new jail. Jailing has changed in 40 years from a temporary holding facility for largely low level crimes to a place where murderers while away the time before waiting to appear in court. This year alone, there have been 15 murder trials and another 30 waiting to happen.
“The sheriff don’t incarcerate people. The commissioners don’t incarcerate people. And this council does not incarcerate people, so the people who control the beds and the overcrowding that is talked about in the lawsuit are the judges. I’d like to know where the judges are. Why are the judges getting a pass on overcrowding of the jail,” Councilman Bob Armstrong asked.
The next county council meeting is Thursday, August 17.
Allen County Board of Commissioners released a statement Thursday on the vote:
Today Allen County Council voted “no” to Ordinance 2023-07-20-06, which would have modified rates for the Local Income Tax (LIT). We are extremely disappointed in Council’s decision. By turning down the ordinance, the county will not collect any Correctional or Rehabilitation Facilities LIT. Without that additional revenue, we cannot move forward with the construction of a new Allen County Jail.
While the county may have the resources to fix some of the crumbling infrastructure within the current jail, it does not have the ability to address long-term issues that plague the building. Allen County is the subject of a judicial order demanding it correct unconstitutional conditions at the jail, the most heinous of which is chronic overcrowding. There has not yet been a year since it was built in 1981 that it met the 80% capacity rating considered the standard best practice in correctional facilities.
There is a saying that ‘today’s dollars are cheaper than tomorrow’s’. By putting off the decision to fund a new jail at this moment in time, County Council will ultimately spend more taxpayer dollars. We will continue to pursue long-term solutions to the civil rights issues of inmates as well as unsafe conditions for staff. It is required by the lawsuit, and it is the right thing to do for our community.