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Tension Mounting In Vigo County As Officials Debate Proposed Jail

A bench in the current Vigo County Jail in Terre Haute.

Photo: Joe Hren

A bench in the current Vigo County Jail in Terre Haute.

Jails across the state are bursting at the seams. County sheriffs are feeling the pinch, and officials are working to find alternative ways to reduce the inmate population and build new jails. Tension is mounting in Terre Haute as federal deadlines pass on a proposed new county jail.

Vigo County Sheriff Greg Ewing says progress on the new county jail is like a wheel stuck in the mud.

“I’m in the proverbial rock and a hard place,” Ewing says.

“We’re occupied 24 hours a day, seven days a week with people that don’t want to be here.”

—Greg Ewing, Vigo County Sheriff

The debate over a new jail has been in the works since the Vigo County Sheriff and county commissions settled a 2000 jail overcrowding lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union. As part of the settlement, the county agreed not to house more than 268 inmates and provide a reasonable amount of recreation time.

But, another lawsuit filed last year claims the county still isn’t holding up its end of the deal, causing inmates to suffer.

Ewing says the jail is not only overcrowded, but needs repair.

“We’re occupied 24 hours a day, seven days a week with people that don’t want to be here,” he says.

Ewing says he’s frustrated by the politics at play while the county spends almost $1 million dollars a year shuffling inmates to jails across the state.

“Vigo County citizens are paying for all that, we put a new roof on the Sullivan County jail,” he says. “So, if I was a resident here, I’d be furious.”

  • Vigo Co. Jail Sergeant Troy Ramsey points out some of the problems at the current Vigo County Jail.

    Image 1 of 2

    Photo: Joe Hren

    Vigo Co. Jail Sergeant Troy Ramsey points out some of the problems at the current Vigo County Jail.

  • The current Vigo County Jail is so full that some inmates are sent for housing in other counties.

    Image 2 of 2

    Photo: Joe Hren

    The current Vigo County Jail is so full that some inmates are sent for housing in other counties.

Vigo County Commissioners approved a site for a new jail in February at the former International Paper site along the Wabash River.

They withdrew that proposal last week due to the negative response from some city leaders and residents who say that area is targeted for commercial and recreational use.

“We’re right across the street from a park where we just located our new aquatic center, multi-million dollar aquatic center,” says Riverscape President Charlie Williams. “We have visitors coming from all over to come swim and we’re going to tell them to go across the street and park in the jail parking lot?”

Vigo County Councilman Brendan Kearns says he prefers the current jail site, but county commissioners said in a statement that area isn’t big enough.

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett says he’s not supportive of the Industrial Park location due to the strain the distance will put on the city police department.

The ongoing issues Vigo County is facing with its jail aren’t unique. State lawmakers overhauled Indiana’s criminal code by moving some of the state’s prison population into local community corrections programs.

Ewing says that legislation shifted those prison inmates to local jails.

“Great concept if we’re living in a world of rainbows and unicorns,” he says, adding it’s a misconception to think the jail is full of low-level offenders. “We’re not holding Otis the town drunk like you see in the old Andy Griffith shows and I tell our citizens, just turn on the news.”

County and city officials disagree on where a new county jail should be located.

Photo: Joe Hren

County and city officials disagree on where a new county jail should be located.

But councilman Kearns says he doesn’t understand why a larger jail is needed.

“Our population has declined 10 percent in the last five years, yet we have the potential to incarcerate 30 to 40 percent more people,” he says.

The Vigo County Council still needs to find a way to fund the proposed $60 million dollar jail – wherever it ends up being located.

Kearns says he thinks the struggle to move forward with the project is indicative of a bigger problem.

“We don’t have a vision,” he says. “There are too many groups that have good intentions that aren’t communicating.”

This week the parties in the most recent lawsuit against the Vigo County Jail tried to get a judge to approve an agreement that provides a timeline for selection of the new jail site, as well as construction and completion of the facility. But, a judge denied the agreement.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

  • lastcamp2

    Jail and prison populations have increased 600% since 1971, making the US the world’s leader in the number of people imprisoned, and that my any metric you care to apply. Query: are Americans that much more wicked than those in other countries? Or do we have more draconian policies? Or are we failing to address underlying problems?
    In Vigo County the present jail is three times the size of the one in use in 1971. The sheriff wants to make it 6 times as large, and in the same breath says it will need to be expanded by another multiple within 30 years. Breathtaking. He also says 80 percent of the people he has imprisoned are there because of drug issues.
    Well, it all tracks back to the failed War on Drugs, which coincidentally was announced and launched in the early 70s, about the time the Nixon blue-ribbon commission on marijuana declared that pot should be legalized, and everyone just ignored that outcome.
    Fact: most people who are illegal drug users are harming no one, except perhaps themselves. And the harm done by criminalization of drugs is worse than the effect of the drugs. Criminalization of drugs is a failed policy, but decriminalization is not politically possible in a society that clings more to superstition and propaganda than scientific fact.
    Now we have an US Attorney General who say he is hell-bent to just to more of the same, I guess expecting a different outcome. With troglodytes like that in charge, we can expect more and more people imprisoned, and greater and greater social damage coming from this entire sad scheme of things.
    But in Vigo County, the answer is simply simplistic. Build a new $70M jail, and plan for an even bigger one in 30 years. Vigo County is once again a bellwether.

  • bengal tiger

    There is money to be made by having a larger capacity jail. VC can receive inmates from surrounding counties that are over capacity, just as we VC residents have been paying for years now, to pay other counties to jail our inmates. I think that is probably one of the bigger issues that is driving this.

    Yes, the War on Drugs has failed miserably. Burying head in sand is what many of our elected representatives, past and present, are good at. And now our current US AG who is a product of the old south, has confirmed to the us sane and educated folks that not only was he a poor choice as a Senator, he is the worst choice as our US AG.

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