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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.

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.”

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.”

The proposed Vigo County Jail site at the former International Paper property near the school aquatic center.

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.”

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.

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