ALLEN COUNTY, Ind. (WANE) – Allen County could be facing a federal takeover of the Allen County Jail if inmate numbers don’t go down and the county doesn’t have an answer to improve jail conditions or finance a new proposed jail by Sept. 29.
On July 20, the Allen County Council voted 4-2 to reject a local income tax, known as the Jail LIT, to finance a new jail after federal judge Damon R. Leichty sided with the Indiana ACLU and inmates in a lawsuit claiming inhumane jail conditions.
“We’re sitting down and discussing the next steps,” Commissioner Richard Beck said Friday after the commissioners’ weekly legislative meeting. “More than likely, we’ll be going back to council with an alternative plan and asking them to reconsider a LIT for this project. It’ll be of course in council’s hands at that time.”
If the council refuses to come up with financing by the next federal status hearing on Sept. 29, the council could also be dragged into the lawsuit.
More drastically, there could be a federal takeover of the process.
“They put in what they call a master who really takes over the process and dictates what happens,” Beck said. “They will tell us to move prisoners out to other locations and pay whatever it takes, whether it’s $200 or $300 a day to do that. Then you’ll get those numbers down.”
In the lawsuit filed in January 2020, the commissioners and the Allen County Sheriff were named as co-defendants and they say they’ve worked to improve conditions and drive down inmate numbers.
But getting down to 590 inmates, or 80% of the jail’s 741-inmate capacity, has not been achieved. There are more people incarcerated since the original jail was built in 1981 and subsequent additions.
And segregation issues – keeping certain kinds of inmates away from others for various reasons – force jail staff to overcrowd some cell blocks in order to keep a smaller number of inmates away from them.
Meanwhile, the jail houses many individuals with mental health needs, greater than they were in 1981, according to commissioners and Allen County Prosecutor Michael McAlexander.
“We have to remember that this current jail was designed close to 50 years ago,” McAlexander said at the council meeting. “The growth of the criminal justice system and the crimes have been significant. And the type of people we’re dealing with is significant.”
The existing jail, as it was designed, was not meant to hold inmates long-term. At that time, inmates were mainly working off misdemeanors at 30 – 60 and 90 days, and holding people on felony charges until they could be brought to trial, McAlexander said.
When McAlexander joined the prosecutor’s office in 1984, there were five homicides. His office has conducted 15 murder trials this year with another 30 murder trials in the lineup.
Steps taken to reduce the inmate population included working with the Indiana Department of Corrections to more quickly move convicted felons to prison. And the state legislature started allowing Level 6 felons to be in state prisons, where before, they passed state legislation to force county jails to house them.
Additionally, the commissioners canceled a $1.1 million contract with U.S. Marshalls to house federal inmates, a move that has made it difficult for attorneys to visit their clients, now held more than an hour away, McAlexander said. That’s even though the federal court is here in Fort Wayne.
Allen County Council has two more meetings before the due date to work out financing the new jail project somewhere around $300 million. The new jail would have a separate medical facility and mental health wing, something that is impossible to have at the existing jail, Beck said.
Mental health has been the primary focus of Help Not Handcuffs, an activist group opposed to the new jail. But at the council meeting July 20, they sided with the council members who voted no, thereby condemning the current inmates to being incarcerated at the existing dilapidated and dangerous facility.
“I know many people in the crowd. They think they just won something big. They didn’t. They got a delay and they’re missing the point and they’re not really doing their homework as to what’s necessary,” McAlexander said.
“This isn’t over,” McAlexander said. “We’re going to have to do something. The design and the theory on jails back in the late ’70s, early ’80s, it’s completely different now. We have a completely different population, mental health, drug treatment needs, than what we had then.”
“We don’t have any place to take somebody who’s going through an acute mental health crisis that’s a lockdown facility that can give them that. Our choice is the jail,” McAlexander said.