FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – They’ve hired an architecture firm, purchased land, have plans drawn up and even a rough timeline of when construction will begin and be completed.
Allen County Commissioners’ plan for a new county jail, though, is still far from a sure bet.
That’s according to newly filed U.S. District Court documents which detail how the commissioners, county council and an advocacy group involved in the process of rectifying deteriorating jail conditions continue to butt heads.
The new filings come as a status conference in front of a federal judge who ruled in a lawsuit last year the current downtown Allen County Jail facility’s conditions violated inmates’ constitutional rights looms.
The class action lawsuit, filed against the county commissioners – F. Nelson Peters, Therese M. Brown and Richard Beck – and the Allen County Sheriff is being spearheaded by the Indiana ACLU.
Commissioners and the sheriff – and possibly members of Allen County Council, even though they are not named in the suit – as well as representatives for the advocacy group Help Not Handcuffs and the ACLU are scheduled to meet with U.S. District Court Judge Damon R. Leichty on Wednesday to give an update on where plans for a new jail stand.
And as of now, everything is at a standstill.
One of the core issues at play is a .2 percent local income tax increase the commissioners want Allen County Council to pass in order to fund a new $300 million jail, which is to be located on Meyer Road.
County council already voted down that proposal once this past summer, however, and despite pleas from commissioners to readdress the matter as well as another public hearing on the increase, there so far is no second vote scheduled.
Without a vote from the council, which controls the county’s funding mechanism for the jail, certain benchmarks for the construction of a new facility – slated to begin next year and be completed possibly in 2026 or 2027 – cannot proceed, commissioners have argued.
“The benchmark dates will likely be delayed if the Allen County Council does not vote in favor of a suitable tax before November 1, 2023,” attorneys for the commissioners wrote in the new court filings.
At least two of the four-county councilmen who voted against the local income tax – Republicans Ken Fries and Kyle Kerley – have expressed publicly that they felt the commissioners’ process in approving a new jail has been mismanaged.
Both have expressed interest in rehabbing the current downtown facility, and Kerley has taken issue with the hiring of architecture firm Elevatus at three times the rate of the lowest bidder for designing and constructing a new jail, according to court filings.
“Personally, I’d like to see what it would cost to rehab the existing facility if that’s even possible…what it would take to use, what we can reuse from the existing facility and, if part of the existing jail is not reusable, can we build an annex on a different site to get to the number of beds we need instead of building a brand-new facility?” Kerley told WANE 15 last month.
Meanwhile, the advocacy group Help Not Handcuffs accused commissioners in the new court filings of having no backup plans in case the local income tax was voted down and even refusing to come up with an alternative income tax percentage to help fund the new jail.
The new filing from the advocacy group also quotes extensively from an op-ed commissioners published in The Journal-Gazette this past spring, imploring council to pass the income tax plan to build a larger jail.
“It has been (Help Not Handcuff’s) position since the outset that alternatives to a new jail facility need to be more closely examined,” the new filings said. “Unfortunately, its requests have been dismissed by the Commissioners over the past many months. With their only plan now defeated, the Commissioners apparently want to lay blame at the feet of the County Council members.
“From the Commissioners’ perspective, they did their job and others need to just get on board with their one proposal of a tax increase,” the filing continues.
The latest filing from the commissioners, however, paints a picture of a group that has gone to council time and again to make changes to the proposed jail which would save money, only to be ultimately rebuffed.
According to the court filing, Elevatus has made multiple changes to designs for the jail to cut costs and has also had representatives available at a moment’s notice for any questions council members might have.
“(Elevatus has made) several design modifications, including, but not limited to reducing the expansion capacity of the facility and the size of the common facilities; removing showers from individual cells and adding those to pod areas; replacing certain 2-person cells with 4-person cells as appropriate; and removing administrative offices for the Sheriff’s Department,” the filing said.
Continuous delays will also likely result in the increased costs of construction as labor and material costs continue to rise, the commissioners’ attorneys wrote in the filings.
In its own filing ahead of Wednesday’s status update, the ACLU is warning the judge that councilmembers may not be aware of the severity of overcrowding issues at the current facility.
Attorneys for the ACLU deposed Council President Tom Harris about a month ago, according to court documents. In the latest filing, the ACLU questioned whether Harris knew how chronically the current jail is facing overcrowding issues, partially because its current population has been hovering at or a little below the 732 inmates.
Previously, the judge in the lawsuit set that number as the threshold the jail should have as its maximum, even though that’s about 80%-85% of what would be considered completely full.
“Although Council President Harris originally indicated that the Council is aware that the Jail is overcrowded, he indicated uncertainty as to whether a jail is overcrowded long before it reaches 100% of bed capacity,” the ACLU wrote in the latest filing. “He later indicated that the Council was aware that a jail is overcrowded when it is above 80%-85% of its total number of beds and that on the day of the deposition, the population of the Jail was between 690 and 702.”
“But he also indicated that he believes the Allen County Jail is not chronically overcrowded because the Jail is under the 732 or 734 figure,” the filing continued. “Mr. Harris did not know what those figures represented, only that these were the population numbers that the Jail had to be under. He is not aware of the number of beds in the Jail.”
In its filing, the ACLU is considering adding county council as defendants in the lawsuit or filing a new suit against the council.
On Tuesday, the Allen County Council announced they will hold an executive session at the end of the week to discuss litigation strategy with legal counsel and advisors. In a release to the media, officials said no final action will be taken concerning litigation strategy at the session.
It’s not clear what the judge could rule after Wednesday’s status hearing, or if he will rule anything at all. Previously, Commissioner Richard Beck said the federal authorities could take over the jail until conditions were improved.
“They put in what they call a master who really takes over the process and dictates what happens,” Beck told WANE 15. “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.”
But as time goes by, the ACLU warns in its latest filing that conditions at the current facility remain.
“The dangerous and unconstitutional conditions continue in the Allen County Jail and there is currently no funded plan to remedy them,” the filing said.