The Vigo County Council on Tuesday tabled a funding request for a study of the county judiciary system.
The request, initially proposed by Vigo County Superior Court Judge Michael Rader, asked for $150,000 to finance an independent study that would examine the local county jail and courts to find solutions for overcrowding.
The county jail has faced multiple lawsuits for overcrowding since 2002, but a proposal for a new $63 million facility was tabled indefinitely after protests from the community. Residents believe that price is too high and a study should be conducted.
The county council has been considering an independent study since September, but council member Brendan Kearns says the council is just one part of the equation.
“Our concern on the council is that that would be a very basic review, compared to what we want: a very extensive review of the whole judicial system within Vigo County.”
“The county council approves the funding,” Kearns says. “The county commissioners have to sign a contract.”
The county commissioners agreed to an assessment in October, but only through the National Institute of Corrections. The NIC did a previous study of the current county jail in 2005.
But Kearns argues the county needs something more in depth and comprehensive than what the NIC offers.
“Our concern on the council is that that would be a very basic review, compared to what we want,” Kearns says. “A very extensive review of the whole judicial system within Vigo County.”
The proposal from Judge Rader was for a study that aligned with what Kearns and community members are calling for. Kearns says Rader met with other local judges to discuss the proposal.
“A result of those meetings indicated that they were going to do their own internal study, instead of have an outside consultant come in,” Kearns says.
He says the council received Rader’s withdrawal request on Monday.
Kearns says the county council still plans to pursue a study with an outside consultant, even without Rader’s proposal or the commissioners’ assistance. He says council president Bill Thomas has been looking into the cost.
The current jail is still facing a lawsuit for overcrowding.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the first of two overcrowding lawsuits against the Vigo County Jail in 2002. That lawsuit ended in a settlement, which included an agreement that the jail never house more than 268 inmates at one time.
Attorney Michael Sutherlin says that agreement was broken almost immediately.
“Almost immediately, that capacity was exceeded,” Sutherlin says. “And nobody did anything.”
In 2016, Sutherlin filed a second lawsuit on behalf of Vigo County inmates alleging overcrowding. He says overcrowding isn’t the only problem; the sheriff is also paying $1 million annually to transport and provide security for inmates in other jails.
Sutherlin says as many as 65 to 80 inmates are housed in other counties.
“A lot of the cells don’t have showers. They’re isolation cells, they’re just metal boxes. If you’re thinking of a cage, that’s what you’ve got.”
“My lawsuit was intended to challenge this kick the ham down the road approach and this do nothing approach,” Sutherlin says, “And force them to make some decisions, to come to some reality check that they had to do something.”
The preliminary hearing for Sutherlin’s lawsuit hasn’t been scheduled yet. But he recently toured the county jail in preparation.
He says inmates were sleeping on the floor during his visit, and there are other issues.
“A lot of the cells don’t have showers. They’re isolation cells, they’re just metal boxes. If you’re thinking of a cage, that’s what you’ve got,” Sutherlin says. “If you’re thinking about a location that should just house somebody and ensure their appearance at trial, because they’re presumed innocent until they go to trial, then you’re looking at a really, really harsh housing situation.”
Sutherlin invited the media to join him on his tour. He says he was hoping it would show the public the need for a new county jail.
Sutherlin says he understands there are some “philosophical issues” surrounding the construction of the new jail, but he also thinks those concerns should have been voiced sooner.
“I applaud them for being involved in the issues, but they could have come up with those complaints, those concerns, 20 years ago,” Sutherlin says. “Or at least 15 years ago, but they didn’t.”
Vigo County isn’t the only place in Indiana facing jail overcrowding and funding. A recent mandate ordered county jails to house level six felons, who were previously housed in state prisons. The issue is affecting jails all across the state.
Sutherlin says to combat Vigo County’s issues, he’s hoping to reduce the jail’s overall capacity from 268 to 240 until a new facility is built.
But the council continues to delay its vote on the $63 million facility until an independent study is done. Now members are struggling to make a study happen.
And after a jail proposal is approved, it would still take around two years before the construction is complete.
Both Sutherlin and Kearns say there is no mandate or requirement to build a new jail, and there’s no official deadline for when the jail should be built. The county just has to remedy its overcrowding issues.
Kearns says every day the council delays is another day that could be spent working on a new jail.
“The longer we wait to do an independent study, the farther back we push breaking ground on a new facility if it’s needed,” Kearns says.
The Tuesday night meeting marked the end of the council’s calendar for 2017. Their next meeting is in January, and Kearns says the jail isn’t on the agenda for that night. He says any decisions on how to move forward won’t be made until February.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that level six felons were formerly housed in state prisons.