The Allen County Commissioners have until the end of December to present the final site for the new Allen County Jail, which is estimated to cost between $300 and $350 million.
Until then, they said last week they’re looking at eight locations, one of which is the Allen County Sheriff’s training facility at Adams Center and Paulding roads on the southeast tip of the city.
Opposition flared almost from the moment they designated the 200-acre site that sits across from Prince Chapman Academy and very near three other public schools in the East Allen County Schools district.
City Councilwoman Sharon Tucker held a press conference in July with fellow council members, Glynn Hines and Michelle Chambers, to voice their outrage at choosing the site on the southeast side, a negative development when there have been other positive ones, including a new housing development not far from the site. The southeast side is considered an underserved area with food deserts and poverty.
The commissioners chose the training facility because they had little choice, they said. Federal Judge Damon R. Leichty initially wanted either a site named by July or plans announced for an overhaul of the existing jail downtown deemed to be overcrowded and understaffed that resulted in inhumane conditions. Those inhumane conditions were outlined in a lawsuit filed in January 2020 by the Indiana ACLU and inmates.
Leichty agreed with the inmates in a March 31 opinion and has set deadlines for the commissioners and the Allen County Sheriff for short and long-term plans.
Friday, East Allen County Schools board member Paulette Nellems weighed in, addressing commissioners at the podium about her concerns of building the jail at the training facility, across Paulding Road from Prince Chapman Academy.
All but one of the school board members toured the site recently.
“Every board member that had the opportunity to view that area, yes, we were definitely against that jail going in that particular space,” Nellems said. They had one discussion during that visit, but she didn’t believe there were any other meetings. During the meeting, board members became aware of gunfire that was coming from the training facility. The principal told them the students were used to the sound.
At Prince Chapman, 10% of the students passed the reading portion of I-Learn, part of the state testing scores, and 17% passed the math portion, Nellems said.
“When a child is not ready to read at grade level by the third grade, they are making that connection to incarceration,” Nellems said about a study she read comparing scholastic achievement of children who had incarcerated family members. “They will see that jail when they’re out on the playground. These are third, fourth and fifth graders. That is a huge concern for me based on that study I read and just the fact that a jail is representative of despair. Schools are representative of hope. I want to see something in that space, some economic development that provides hope to those children and something that would help improve those reading scores.”
Nellems, who is running as a Democrat for Allen County Council to represent that district, said as she canvasses the area for votes, parents tell her they are opposed to having the jail there, but they don’t speak up because they don’t believe their voices are heard.
“From this point on, I will be an active voice for the people,” Nellems said.
Daylana Saunders, co-founder of the Changemakers Fort Wayne, a grassroots activist group, was even stronger in her language.
Saunders said her organization “continuously warns” the public that her organization doesn’t believe the commissioners are scoping out eight locations. She believes the commissioners have already decided they will build a new jail at the training facility.
“There has been a decision made on Paulding and Adams Center. The commissioners are drawing it out until the December decision, but have landed on the location and the decision for southeast Fort Wayne, southeast Allen County. We are not to be fooled that they have changed their mind,” Saunders said.
She said another location at Meyer Road has been fronted, but there have been no updates.
“They told the judge that there would be transparency. Have we heard any updates? We have to follow the patterns they’re giving us. We have to follow the track record of (Commisioner) Nelson Peters. He’s the only one who is speaking out, but he hasn’t given us anything. The only thing we can go by is what they’re giving us. If they’re giving us nothing, then what do we do? We go by what they’re giving us,” Saunders said.
At the end of the meeting, the commissioners declined to speak on Nellems and Saunders’ comments. Peters did say the commissioners’ website will present a list of inmates charges and those who are currently incarcerated at the jail, but the inmates themselves will not be identified.