Public hearing on jail financing scheduled for June 7

ALLEN COUNTY, Ind. (WANE) — A year ago, federal judge Damon R. Leichty sat in a courtroom at the downtown federal courthouse and blasted Allen County officials for tolerating inhumane conditions at the Allen County Jail.

Understaffing and overcrowding led to inmates sleeping in plastic “boats,” forcing inmates to sleep with their heads next to the latrine. There was little to no recreation available outside or inside the semi-dilapidated jail with rotting infrastructure. And with numbers above 800, inmates and confinement officers were living in conditions prone to violence.

Leichty made it clear that he could hold the Allen County Board of Commissioners and the Allen County Sheriff in contempt if they didn’t do something to reduce the jail population and hire more staff, among other things.

Sheriff Troy Hershberger said current departmental employees believe a new jail will make work easier and better.
Cory Miller, president of Elevatus Architecture, says multi-story jails like the existing one are more dangerous. Vertical transport is one of the dangers.

A year later, Therese Brown, the commissioners’ president, and Sheriff Troy Hershberger will be able to walk in to the federal courthouse Friday morning fairly confident that the county is meeting Leichty’s demands.

“I believe we have put everything forward that’s needed to be addressed and I look forward to what the court may say,” Brown said this week. “Hopefully we’ve made enough progress for the potential adoption of the jail LIT (local income tax).”

Who’s responsible for building the new jail?

To understand how the system works, it’s important to know who’s responsible for what.

The commissioners own the jail and all county buildings and are mandated to build and/or maintain them or sell them. The sheriff has to manage the jail and hire staff.

The funding arm for both entities is the Allen County Council and the focus will move to the council as they figure out how a new jail, an inevitability at this time, will be paid for.

Getting to this point started on March 31, 2022 when Leichty sided with the Indiana ACLU and local inmates in their federal lawsuit,  agreeing that conditions were inhumane.

Allen County certainly isn’t the first county in the state to find themselves in court on these matters.

ACLU lawsuit forced the county’s hand on a new jail build

The lawsuits grew after the Indiana state legislature mandated in 2014 that local jails house Level 6 felons, leading to overcrowding. The legislators reversed that mandate two years ago, but the change didn’t begin until July 1 of last year and only newly-sentenced Level 6 felons could be sent to state prisons.

In the meantime, former Sheriff David Gladieux was forced to decline a $1 million contract with the U.S. Marshalls to house federal inmates and his staff worked with the Indiana Department of Corrections to double the number of inmates destined for state prison.

Not much can be done about who is in jail. That’s up to the arresting officers from the Fort Wayne Police Department and the Allen County Sheriff’s Department and the local court system, Gladieux said.

As of Thursday, the Allen County Jail had 640 inmates, a drop from the 800 inmate level of about a year ago and the 900 level pre-COVID. There was one inmate using a “boat” and 27 people in lock-up where they often spend no more than 24 hours, Hershberger said.

However, it’s still not what Leichty believes is the ideal level and he’s consistently called for 80% capacity or 593 inmates because of the sheriff’s obligations to segregate certain populations. The existing jail and its additions are technically built to house 741 inmates.

Inmate numbers that hold stubbornly steady are the number of probation violators at 167; community corrections violators at 22 inmates and pre-trial felony inmates at 252.  

Judge’s mandate is now to see jail design and financing

Leichty prodded the county to make progress in choosing a site for the new jail, hire a construction manager and come up with schematic designs. At the last status hearing on Dec. 16, Leichty wanted to see a design for the new jail and financing progress.

According to Tom Harris, Allen County Council president, council members have been working with commissioners and the sheriff to come to an agreement on the money. A public hearing on jail financing is scheduled for June 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Citizens Square. Harris said a vote on the financing will likely take place at the council’s June 15 meeting.

Bonding for the new jail, to be built in the 2900 block of Meyer Road, could amount to between $250 million to $275 million, but that bonding amount could be reduced if the county uses the cash it has on hand. There’s about $50 million in county coffers and Harris says the commissioners could tap into about $25 million.

Hoosier counties have turned to a taxing tool created by the state legislature to pay for correctional or rehabilitation facilities  called the local income tax or LIT. Counties can tax between .05% and .25% of annual income. County officials have settled on a LIT rate of .2% annually that will allow the county to pay off the bond in up to 25 years that the state allows for the bond to exist.

What the tax means to Allen County residents

That translates into $100 increase for an individual making $50,000 annually and $200 for an annual income of $100,000, Harris said. It’s considered a less regressive tax, because it’s a flat rate income tax that doesn’t tax the poor disproportionately, according to County Councilman Paul Lagemann who is the liaison to the sheriff’s department.

WANE 15 sat down with Elevatus’ Miller and Hershberger to get their thoughts the day before the defining meeting with Leichty.

“To be honest, it’s a little intimidating, but he (the judge) is asking questions of us that we work on every day,” Miller said.

A new jail is needed at this point and one concern is vertical transportation i.e. the multi-story design that has inmates moving between floors, sometimes 10 at a time with one security officer.

“It just creates a potential hazard in a jail so we try to avoid it at all costs. Even as big as the current jail is, the way you classify and separate inmates based on their danger or classification of crime, it’s tough to do that,” Miller said. “It’s set up as a large jail with very few separations. In addition to that, the staffing is very intensive,” Miller added.

Because the jail will house more than 1,200 inmates, it’s not uncommon to have mental health and medical services besides the JCAP (Jail Chemical Addictions Program) on site. With a “special housing unit” as a mental health or medical  POD is called, there are cost savings when transportation to outside medical services isn’t needed.

“It becomes much more efficient to treat those kinds of services on site,” Miller said.

Construction is expected to begin next spring with a completion date of fall 2027.

Hershberger said the existing structure isn’t worth pouring money into.

“In the long term, it would make it difficult to stay there. It’s been added on to twice and it’s not efficient for our staff or running of the facility,” Hershberger said.

As the head of the department, he visits the jail at least a couple of times each week and talks primarily to the day shift, he said. “A new jail will make their jobs easier. They’re delighted in having a new structure built.” A new jail will also help recruit people to work at the jail.

“All the cards have got to fall in the right spot, but yes, I would welcome it,” said Hershberger of the a new jail. “It’s the right thing to do in the long run. In the short run, it will cost a lot of money, but in the long run it will save us money.