FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) –The Allen County Commissioners are hoping the Allen County Council will approve jail funding before the Nov. 1 deadline a federal judge set on Wednesday.
In July, the Council failed to approve funding, the last check on a list the county has been working toward for 17 months. Without a funding mechanism, real work cannot begin on the 1,100-bed jail estimated to cost about $300 million.
Friday, at the Allen County Commissioners’ weekly legislative meeting, president Therese Brown expressed hope that “the council can come together on what they need to do.”
The Council will meet for its monthly meeting on Oct. 19 at 8:30 a.m. There could be a vote at that meeting since a public hearing has already been held on the .2% Jail Lit. Otherwise, a vote will have to take place up through Halloween.
The Commissioners and the Allen County Sheriff were named as defendants in a federal lawsuit filed by the Indiana ACLU and county inmates in January 2020. On March 31, 2022, federal judge Damon R. Leichty sided with the plaintiffs that conditions at the jail were inhumane due to understaffing and overcrowding and ordered the county to reverse the conditions by lowering the population, providing recreation, and hiring more staff that would theoretically decrease violence, among other things.
At the status hearing Wednesday that included an appearance by County Council president Tom Harris and council attorney Mitch Harper before the judge, Leichty warned the county that stronger measures would be taken to remedy the jail situation.
Both Leichty and Ken Falk, the ACLU’s legal director, said while the months go on, every day inmates’ constitutional rights are being violated.
“I came away that the judge is taking very seriously the deadline of Oct 31,” Brown said Friday.” I would not rule out that, in the status update that obviously Ken Falk from the ACLU will be filing, if there is not a positive vote by the 31st, that the judge is serious about taking next steps.”
Sanctions could include a three-panel judge with the potential of a master who would oversee operations to get the population down to 80 to 85% of capacity at 741. That percentage would mean around 580 inmates at the jail. Today that number is 720 with 20 inmates in lock-up. Forty-six inmates are sleeping in boats, a number that has exploded in the last two months.
Boats are the plastic shells in which inmates are forced to sleep when segregation measures overwhelm certain blocks. In a two-inmate cell, the third occupant sleeps in a boat close to the cell toilet, something which Leichty found repugnant and said so in his court order.
Close to half the population is being held pretrial – 302 for a felony and 19 on a misdemeanor charge – according to jail statistics for today. In a letter dated Sept. 20 to Kyle Kerley, former president of the County Council, Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull said she believed part of the existing jail could be renovated and pre-trial detainees could be housed outside downtown Fort Wayne.
Another chunk of the population – 191 – is in jail for probation violations.
But, architectural studies show the jail is “at the end of its useful cycle,” a phrase both Falk and Leichty used several times during the status hearing.
“This is not a situation that I believe some think this is meant that the commissioners are trying to build a Taj Mahal,” Brown said. “It’s time to build a jail. It’s unfortunate that we’re in the situation that we’re in as a community, but it needs to get done and it needs to move on.
After Wednesday’s hearing, Falk compared modern jails to older ones such as the one in Allen County, a multi-story structure that presents problems such as moving inmates up and down in elevators with maybe one guard. In newer jails, plumbing is accessed outside the cell which would prevent constant flooding by inmates who also use the toilet bowels to send drugs and threats.
Falk said at the Allen County Jail, there are limited sight lines. Brown said improved sightlines could have helped prevent the suicide attempt that took place at 10 a.m. Wednesday just as the status hearing was beginning at the downtown federal courthouse. At 1:30 p.m., Leichty started a tour at the jail, confirmed by several county officials.
The question is: did Leichty know what had transpired the same day? The same day he warned the county “extreme measures” might be taken and wondered aloud why the County Council had purchased land for a new jail and then voted down a jail income tax to fund it.
Brown has toured newer jails and found that the number of violent incidences decreases with better sightlines and other amenities deemed humane.
“Those that are having mental health issues and anything along those lines – medical and mental – will be able to be segregated in a way they can get the help they need instead of being in the general population,” Brown said. “That might be a sticking point for some, but it’s still the number of beds we need. “
Brown says the commissioners, responsible for maintaining all county-owned buildings, have sent the council everything needed to make a decision.
“We have met with them on several occasions in executive session to give them the information that we believe they needed. If questions weren’t asked or brought forward, I can’t answer what I don’t know, nor can my compatriots,” Brown said.