Photograph by Steven Higgs
Some in the community argue the old, overcrowded Monroe County Jail should be replaced by a new "justice campus" outside of the downtown area. Others say such a facility would cost taxpayers $6 million a year and that more effective approaches to crime than punishment should be pursued.
When Monroe County Jail inmate Trevor Richardson formally complained about conditions in the county "correctional center" the day after Christmas last year, he made the place sound like a third-world prison.
"I have been in jail the past 129 days and have been consistently subject to inhumane, unsanitary and harsh conditions," he wrote in a Dec. 26, 2007, grievance filed with county corrections officials. "I don't understand why on a 24 man block we probably average a constant 70 inmates with just two showers and bathrooms available to us."
Third in a series
In a federal lawsuit filed a month-and-a-half later against the Monroe County sheriff and the county commissioners, Richardson added "dangerous" to his list of descriptors. He asked U.S. District Judge Richard L. Young to determine whether "conditions in the Monroe County Jail violate the United States Constitution and Indiana law."
The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU of Indiana on behalf of Richardson, who was serving time for misdemeanor resisting law enforcement. In it, Richardson maintained that Indiana law requires Sheriff Jim Kennedy to "[t]ake care of the county jail and the prisoners" and the three commissioners to "establish and maintain" a jail.
"At a maximum, the worst thing is that we've got a bunch of people sleeping on the floor."
- Hal Taylor
New Leaf, New Life
In August, Young granted Richardson's request that the lawsuit be "class action," representing "any and all persons currently confined, or who will in the future be confined, in the Monroe County Jail."
Richardson cited 40 "Factual Allegations" in support of his lawsuit, most flowing from his contention that the jail population exceeds the facility's capacity "for much, if not all, of the time" and is "grossly overcrowded."
The jail was designed to hold 126 prisoners, Kennedy said. Earlier this year he launched a project to "double bunk" the cells and increase capacity, as well as other renovations designed to ease some of the conditions cited in Richardson's lawsuit.
In early October the sheriff announced that the jail would no longer house work release prisoners, who are allowed out of jail in the daytime to work but must sleep in the jail. Work release has taken up 28 beds.
In his February lawsuit, Richardson said the jail had a "rated capacity" of 200. Seven months later, on Sept. 21, the jail population reached a new high of 334.
As a result of the overcrowding, Richardson said prisoners sleep in dayrooms outside of the cell blocks and on the floor of the gymnasium, which precludes them from engaging in any recreation.
"At times, some of the blocks are so overcrowded that it is impossible to walk in the areas outside the cells that are open to the prisoners during the day," he said. "There are simply too many people on the floor."
Richardson said he spent "more than four months" sleeping on the floor of J Block, which New Leaf, New Life's Tania Karnofsky said is a block of nonviolent offenders where the most overcrowding occurs.
New Leaf, New Life is a nonprofit group that works on inmate rehabilitation inside the jail.
"J Block is the one that overflows," Karnofsky said during an interview on Oct. 1. She produced a "Daily Population Sheet" that showed 96 prisoners in the 32-bed block on Sept. 28. Two of the cells are used as bathrooms for all 96 men, so J Block operationally has only 30 beds.
The overcrowding naturally leads to conflicts between prisoners, Richardson's lawsuit says. "For example, prisoners have fought over bed space."
"If we adequately address poverty, mental health issues, addiction, unemployment and underemployment ... we will go a long way toward reducing our jail population."
- Julie Thomas
County Council candidate
Kennedy said the conditions also lead to increased tensions between inmates and staff. The County Council has added enough jailers that the inmate-to-officer ratio would be within an acceptable range, were it not for the overcrowding.
"We're within five or six of a good inmate-staff ratio," the sheriff said. "I'm not uncomfortable with that."
In the lawsuit, Richardson alleges other byproducts of the overcrowding: cold food, dirty showers, dirty living conditions and overall unsafe and hazardous conditions.
"The conditions in the Monroe County Jail result in the denial of basic human needs and the minimal civilized measures of life's necessities and amount to punishment," he said the lawsuit.
Kennedy shrugged his shoulders in exasperation when the subject of overcrowding initially arose during a Sept. 17 interview. "Let's call it crowding," he said. "I don't know what overcrowding means."
He has no such struggle defining the problems.
Some seem almost mundane. "Last weekend we almost ran out of jail uniforms and blankets -- just ran out."
Some could be life-threatening. "If I ever get some kind of contagious disease up there going." His voice trails off.
And of course there are safety concerns. "I have to run a secure and safe facility. My problem is the safety part. When it gets this crowded, it becomes very problematic, not just for the inmates but for the staff."
Short of letting prisoners out, Kennedy said he's out of options. "I gotta put them somewhere, and pretty soon somewhere doesn't exist."
He wouldn't be surprised if Judge Young puts a cap on the number of inmates that can be housed in the jail, and he emphasizes that who stays or walks is not his call.
On Sept. 17, when Kennedy made his comments, the jail population was 301. He has 252 actual beds with the double-bunking, so 49 inmates could have to be released.
"The judges decide which of these people we are going to let out," he said. "D felons? C felons? Are we going to let misdemeanants out who just beat up their wives? That's going to be a tough decision?"
Kennedy and some other county officials say the only solution is to build a new "justice campus" with a new jail, a juvenile facility and other features.
"The conditions in the Monroe County Jail result in the denial of basic human needs and the minimal civilized measures of life's necessities and amount to punishment."
- Trevor Richardson
Former jail inmate
"I frankly don't know what else I can do with the footprint I have here," he said from his jail office.
Others, like New Leaf, New Life's Rev. Hal Taylor, disagree. He called Richardson's description of the jail "overdrawn."
"Conditions aren't that bad in this jail," he said. "At a maximum, the worst thing is that we've got a bunch of people sleeping on the floor."
Taylor doesn't suggest the situation is acceptable. But he argued the jail is populated by too many people who don't need to be incarcerated and that a new jail would only exacerbate the trend.
Democratic County Commissioner candidate Mark Stoops said county taxpayers simply cannot afford the $40 and $60 million it would cost to build a new facility.
The cost of construction and operations would cost an estimated $6 million a year "just to warehouse more people in a jail," he wrote in a recent news release.
Instead, Stoops called on the county "to invest $2 million each year to properly fund and maintain programs proved to reduce recidivism in our county, along with finally building the Juvenile Treatment Facility."
Democratic County Council candidate Julie Thomas agreed.
"If we adequately address poverty, mental health issues, addiction, unemployment and underemployment, and the need for educational and vocational training, we will go a long way toward reducing our jail population," she said in the release.
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.