County jails across the state don’t have enough room to house all of the inmates in their facilities.
Many sheriffs are using temporary beds to make room for extra people, but it’s putting inmate and officer safety at risk. Counties say while several factors led to the problem, there’s one solution: they need state funding.
Wedding: We Have No Other Place To Put People
As Vanderburgh County Sheriff Dave Wedding gives us a tour of his jail, you can hear the frustration in his voice.
“When I have a jail with 700-something inmates that’s designed for 550, I don’t think you need too many committees to understand we have a problem.”
“When I have a jail with 700-something inmates that’s designed for 550, I don’t think you need too many committees to understand we have a problem,” Wedding says.
We’re walking through a cell block that houses female inmates. In what used to be a common area for the women, there are several metal bunk beds pushed against the wall.
“We have no other place to put the people so we’ve had to put makeshift beds in there to house people temporarily until we find more room, or we can ship people out,” he says.
That means the overcrowded areas are less secure because once an officer enters a block there’s no barrier between the officer and the extra inmates. Wedding received a grant that will help cover the cost of hiring some additional officers, but he says that only addresses one aspect of the problem.
As we walk through different cell blocks, Wedding points out several people on suicide watch. And there are a handful of inmates here suffering from mental illness.
“When there’s nowhere to go, they end up there,” he says.
Jails aren’t designed to provide treatment for those people, but the lack of state treatment facilities means they don’t have other options. And it’s only one factor that’s contributing to widespread overcrowding.
Legislators Examining How Criminal Code Reform Impacts Overcrowding
Legislators are discussing the issue as part of a study committee. Specifically, they’re looking at how criminal code reform passed in 2014 is impacting jail populations. Under those changes, level six felons now serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prisons.
Christopher Johnston from KSM Consulting gave legislators a report this week of how much the state saved during the past fiscal year as a result of diverting level six felons to county jails.
“It’s roughly $4.2 million in fiscal year ’17,” Johnston told legislators.
That amount includes money saved from diverting the inmates to county jails and the closure of Henryville Correctional Facility.
But the state’s savings is coming at a significant cost to counties. The state only pays them $35 a day for housing level six felons and counties say that doesn’t begin to cover the costs associated with overcrowding.
“Actually funding new officers is the issue,” says Bartholomew County Jail Commander John Martoccia.
Martoccia’s facility is housing roughly 20 level six felons this week. That may not sound like much, but it exacerbates the problem for a jail that’s already overcrowded. Over the past few months, he says inmates have attacked six officers here.
“The tensions are high in the cell blocks due to the overcrowding, not having enough room,” he says.
And what’s unique about the situation in Bartholomew County is the jail has what many others don’t: extra space.
The old wing of the jail has 108 available beds, but they’re sitting empty because there aren’t enough guards to staff the area. The county is pursuing an income tax increase to hire five additional guards.
“We’re still trying to get up to where we should be on the new part of the jail on staffing before even thinking about opening the old part up,” Martoccia says.
He says sending level six felons back to state prisons would help, but that won’t magically solve all the problems.
Overcrowding has led to lawsuits in other communities, including Vigo County. The county’s been trying to build a new jail since it settled a lawsuit related to inmate conditions in 2002. But county leaders haven’t been able to agree on how to fund it or where to put it. The county council tabled a vote this week on an income tax increase that would help fund the project.
Back in Evansville, Sheriff Wedding is heading up a bi-partisan committee of sheriffs from across the state to try and come up with comprehensive solutions to the problems fueling the exploding jail population. Until changes are made, he keeps a drawer full of paperwork in his office, ready in case of a lawsuit like Vigo County’s.