Photograph by Jonathan Benedek

Jail Commander Bill Wilson gives a brief tour of the jail. Overcrowding is a constant challenge for Wilson and his staff.

Monroe County Jail Commander Bill Wilson has faced the same challenge every day for the past nine years -- jail overcrowding.

According to Wilson, this issue is not unique to Monroe County or to Indiana. "Probably a majority of jails across the country" are facing this challenging situation, he said.

Wilson's challenge affects his job, his staff, his inmates, his department's budget and all of the citizens of Monroe County.

"It is an entire system problem that is going on," he said.

The Monroe County Jail was built in March 1986. And within the first two weeks, it already had more inmates than it did beds. The facility was built to house 124 inmates, but additions to the jail, plus the implementation of double-bunking, has raised capacity.

Monroe County Sheriff Jim Kennedy said the inmate population in the jail topped out at 296. The number of beds, or the capacity, is 204.

Jail capacity

Wilson said three industrywide definitions exist for "jail capacity."

The first is the most inmates that can fit in the jail, 313 in Monroe County. The second definition is the number of beds, 204 in Monroe County.

The third and best definition, Wilson said, is the number of inmates that he can carry with his staff. That number for the Monroe County Jail is only about 190-195.

"By defining capacity by the number of beds, I do not think that is right," said Wilson. "Defining by the number I can crowd in, I do not think that is right."

Sgt. Cheryl Gafken said a short staff plus rising inmate numbers creates problems for everyone.

"It makes it more stressful for the inmates, because they are living in crowded conditions," she said. "And the more stress they get, the harder it is, and the more stress it is for us to try and deal with their stresses and take care of everybody's needs. It all snowballs."

Photograph by Jonathan Benedek

The Monroe County Jail was built in 1986. Within weeks of opening, it was already overcapacity.

She has a timeline and a list of things she does on her routine, and more inmates means more work and makes it nearly impossible to meet deadlines.

"The more people you try to cram in a limited amount of space the more difficult everyone's position is going to be," said Gafken.

Wilson agreed.

"We always have more inmates than we can adequately provide the level of service that we should be doing," said Wilson.

More cops equal more inmates

Wilson said the number of law enforcement officers in the city has increased "dramatically," and more officers mean a larger "net" is being cast and more arrests being made. And that means more offenders passing through the criminal justice system.

"When you have more people in the entire criminal justice system, there is not enough court time to process all these people in an efficient manner, and they begin to back up," he said. "You may have difficulties because you do not have enough probation officers to see everybody."

Sometimes the inmates get backed up trying to get out of jail, said Wilson. Sometimes there is not adequate supervision when they get out of jail, and that makes it much more likely they will commit further crimes.

"Really, it is a system problem," he said.

Jail overcrowding has made the budgeting aspect of Wilson's job more difficult. He said that in May 2007 he submitted his budget for all of 2008, not knowing what his inmate population will be. If his projections are off, so is his budget.

"When you think about feeding, if you are looking at let's just say five extra inmates, that translates into 15 extra meals a day, which is 450 meals a month, which is 5,400 meals a year," said Wilson. "Even five people can make a huge difference in cost."

Jail overcrowding has an effect on the citizens of Monroe County, Wilson said. It impacts what types of charges are filed against offenders and what offenders are released from jail, some of whom, perhaps, should not be.

"I do not have the decision-making authority to decide who is prosecuted, who is not, who is released and who is not," said Wilson. "But I know that is something they really have to think about."

The future

The only way this can be resolved is for the community to set clear management objectives about jail growth over a period of time, Wilson said.

"As a community we need to (decide) what type of individuals do we want to incarcerate?" he said. "What types of crimes are considered those types of crimes that people need to be in jail instead of in the community?"

The jail and its inmate population has been a topic of discussion for the past 10 years, said Wilson. Committees like New Leaf -New Life have formed and meet regularly to discuss this issue.

Wilson calls this citizen input among the "valuable ingredients" in finding a solution.

"They can provide an avenue or venue for citizens to talk about what is going to happen, as well, because it is a community issue," he said.

Jonathan Benedek can be reached at .