FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – At least one member of Allen County Council will be deposed on whether he or she is aware of the requirements for a new or rehabilitated jail as part of a federal judge’s ruling in a lawsuit that the current facility’s conditions are inhumane.

On Sept. 12, Ken Falk, of the Indiana ACLU will depose or interview at least one member of the Allen County Council at Beers Mallers law firm in downtown Fort Wayne, according to Allen County Council attorney Mitch Harper.

The deposition is ACLU’s request, not the federal judge’s, Harper said.

It comes on the heels of the county council voting to strike down an income tax increase that would’ve gone to funding the jail.

“I suspect it’s going to be much like the prior deposition that was held of the then-county council president asking if the county council members are all apprised of the requirements of meeting the judge’s order regarding the constitutionality of the treatment of inmates at the Allen County Jail, if they’re aware of the what the staffing has been, the population,” said Harper of the deposition. “I think it’s going to be more of a confirmation that the county council is indeed aware of the requirements that have been set by Judge Leichty.”

Allen County Council attorney, Mitch Harper

Harper, Falk and federal judge Damon R. Leichty, besides the attorney for Help Not Handcuffs, conferred in a Zoom meeting Monday morning, along with attorneys representing the Allen County Commissioners and the Allen County Sheriff, the two entities named as defendants in the federal lawsuit filed in January 2020.

The county council is the last step in the county’s quest to satisfy a federal judge’s order to reverse inhumane conditions at the Allen County Jail after he sided with the ACLU and inmates in March 2022. The judge agreed with the plaintiffs that conditions had deteriorated because of understaffing and overcrowding.

Harper reported that the Zoom meeting was cordial and that, as yet, the council will not be named in the lawsuit, but Leichty expects them to make an appearance at the next status hearing on Sept. 29.

The judge indicated he’d be able to speak with the parties involved before the Sept. 29 meeting, but felt that all the parties “could inform him directly,” if necessary. “I think all parties are working diligently to resolve the jail situation.”

Since June of last year, there have been several status hearings with Leichty at the downtown federal courthouse. Leichty has said he wants the jail to be no more than 80% full or about 580 inmates and the staffing levels to increase.

In order to achieve that, the commissioners made plans to build a new jail, something that had long been talked about. A study of the entire criminal justice system showed a need for more square feet in the judicial system and at the jail, a multi-story facility originally built in 1981 and added on to that has been fraught with problems for maintenance and safety.

A new jail built on the POD system would be at most one story with a mezzanine. Utilities would be placed on the outside of cells so inmates can not flood or stop up the plumbing, nor will they be able to pass contraband or voice threats through “the bowl,” or toilet.

But the cost is considerable for the county’s largest construction project in recent history.

The jail that will include a medical unit prepared to handle mentally distressed inmates is estimated to cost between $250 and $300 million, rather than the original estimate of $350 million. The commissioners, acting under Leichty’s orders, hired an architect, and a construction manager and purchased a site at 2911 Meyer Road to construct the jail.

The last piece missing is the financing and that must be done through the county’s purse, the county council. The commissioners believed the council would approve a special local income tax called a “Jail Lit.” The income tax is a legislative creation that allows counties to approve a separate income tax for correctional and rehabilitation facilities. The allowed spread is between .05% and .25%

The commissioners settled on .2% in order to be able to build the facility they feel is needed to fulfill the judge’s orders, Commissioner Nelson Peters said Friday.

Harper said Monday he believes the council and commissioners will be able to come to a decision that won’t impede the county from complying with state requirements to file a Jail lit in October in order to start collecting taxes necessary to get the project off the ground.

“It’s a step forward toward replacing the jail and meeting the judge’s order on the jail, and preparation for the status hearing in September,” Harper said.  “The county council will move forward and probably will do so before its Sept. 21 meeting. There are talks that there will be a public meeting that has to be legally advertised before that meeting occurs and so things are moving along.”