The first stop on a Jim Kennedy-led tour of the county jail is a tiny segregation cell holding a wild-eyed, drawn-faced man who looks to be in his 50s. As the inmate spoke through the inches-thick slit of a window, Sheriff Kennedy told him he couldn’t hear and to speak through the door jam.
A couple seconds after the sheriff moved his ear to the door’s edge, the man started shouting. Most of it was unintelligible from my vantage point about 5 feet from the secured steel door, but I did clearly discern: “I’m a veteran. … Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!”
First in a series
Just a few minutes earlier in his office, Kennedy had explained that the Monroe County Correctional Facility, which occupies the top two floors of the Justice Building at Seventh Street and College Avenue, was designed and built to house 126 inmates.
The inmate in Segregation Cell No. 1 on Sept. 17 was one of 301 inmates who started the day in the county jail.
“That’s down from last weekend’s 312,” Kennedy said, “which was a record for the number of people inside the facility.”
The Kennedy interview and jail tour marked the initial reporting on a new Bloomington Alternative project called “Going to Jail,” which will be an ongoing investigation into conditions inside the jail and the election-year debate over spending millions to build a new one.
It’s a subject I have some history with -- I followed some of the opposition to building the Justice Building when I was in graduate school in the mid-1980s. I recall community activists arguing almost a quarter century ago that if the county built a 126-bed monstrosity, the judges would fill it.
County government was my first beat when I joined the Herald-Telephone in 1985, and I wrote about the jail’s opening in March 1986. During my 11 years at the paper, I reported extensively on the legal process that did in fact fill the jail in a short period of time.
For two, maybe three, years in the late 80s, I covered “the courts.” The assignment meant reviewing court schedules, lawsuit filings and criminal sentencing inside the Justice Building at least once a day, usually twice. I almost never go in the place today without running into someone I know or used to know.
The last time I was inside the jail, behind the locked doors, was just before it opened 22½ years ago. I recall the place being spacious, clean and shiny. Some inside the criminal justice system at the time fretted that it was too hotel-like and that watching TV behind bars wouldn’t serve as much of a deterrent.
Kennedy jokingly refers to the jail today as a hotel, his characterization rife with irony. He said a jailer had excitedly told him the morning of our interview that the jail population had dropped by 10 to 15 that day.
“Now we’re down to 285,” he told me. “That means we only have 10 or 15 people sleeping on the floor. That’s what we do with them. We have no other place to put them.”
One reason the jail population swelled in the 80s and 90s was a program under which the Indiana Department of Corrections paid the county to house state prisoners. The program served multiple purposes, generating revenue for Monroe County and relieving overcrowding in the state penitentiary system, among others.
No state prisoners occupy the Monroe County jail today, Kennedy said.
“We don’t do that anymore,” he said. “I’m too crowded. I can’t take state prisoners. These are ours.”
“Now we’re down to 285. That means we only have 10 or 15 people sleeping on the floor."
- Sheriff Jim Kennedy
And they are largely felons, he added, reading from a document he called the only “snapshot” of the jail population available to the county. It was prepared last June by the county judges, sheriff and probation department, when the population was exactly two times its intended capacity.
Local inmates tend to be slightly older than the national average, Kennedy said. Just under half of female and just over half of the males inmates are between 26 and 39 years old.
On average, Monroe County inmates have criminal records with four felony arrests. “That’s the average,” Kennedy reiterated for emphasis.
Add to that another four to six arrests for misdemeanors for females and males respectively, he said.
“That’s on top of the felonies,” Kennedy said, “so males had an average of 10 arrests previous to that date.”
The numbers go on and on.
Average number of known felony convictions: three. Average number of known misdemeanor convictions: females, two; males three. Average number of known arrests: females, seven; males 10.
Allegations that the jail is full of citizens with drug and alcohol problems are not borne out by the data, Kennedy said.
“Most of the people in this jail are here because they’re in for a felony charge,” he said.
And while Kennedy, a veteran of 40-plus years in law enforcement in Monroe County, had to ask another jailer who the man in Segregation Cell No. 1 was, he is getting to know inmates as a result of high recidivism rates.
“I’ve been here a year and nine months now, and I’m getting to know some of these people,” he said. “I could walk up there and say, ‘Oh yeah, George, you were in here five months ago, or two weeks ago.’”
Steven Higgs can be reached at .