Jail overcrowding issue resurfaces

A committee put in place several years ago to address chronic overcrowding at the Jackson County Jail has been reestablished.

The issue recently came to the forefront when Sheriff Mike Carothers invited two state jail inspectors to speak about their concerns of overcrowding and possible ways to address it with county commissioners.

Tuesday’s jail population was 223, 51 above capacity. January’s average inmate count was 237, while the average daily count in 2016 was 226.

The inspectors, Kenny Whipker and Lee Hoard, told commissioners they are well aware of the challenges many Hoosier counties face with overcrowded jails.

Both Whipker, who was once sheriff of Bartholomew County, and Hoard, who was once sheriff of Carroll County, said overcrowding can often lead to lawsuits, which in turn can lead to a judge ordering the issue being resolved immediately with no regards to cost. There also can be monetary damages.

After the meeting, Carothers said he invited Whipker and Hoard to talk with commissioners because two of the three, Republicans Bob Gillaspy and Drew Markel, took office Jan. 1, and he wanted them to know about the issue.

Carothers said the jail always has been overcrowded since he was elected six years ago, but there has not been a lawsuit filed by an inmate because of overcrowding during that time period.

The jail was inspected in December, and like previous inspections, few problems were found with the exception of one — overcrowding, Carothers said.

In the summer of 2016, Carothers told county officials he thought a change in state law might push the inmate count to 300 by the end of the year. That law required inmates sentenced to a year or less to remain in the county jail where they received their sentence instead of being shipped to a state prison.

Carothers said the growth to 300 inmates a day didn’t happen as he anticipated.

Jackson Circuit Judge Richard W. Poynter has been doing a good job of pushing inmates through the system and getting them out of the jail, Carothers said.

Other factors could be at play, including the implementation of a public defender office that was designed to move inmates through the justice system quicker. That program is just over a year old, and it’s too new to determine its effect, Carothers said.

A program put in place early this year by Jackson Superior I Judge Bruce Markel and Carothers could help ease overcrowding some. That program allows people arrested on charges such as public intoxication, illegal consumption, minor in possession and driving while suspended to be booked into jail and released on their own recognizance, he said.

People accused of committing crimes against people are not eligible for release, and Carothers said he never allows the release of people through the program until they are sober.

“We call it the catch and release program,” Carothers said. “It helps a little. It cuts us down five or 10.”

He also said he thinks the new drug court established this past year is going to help by keeping first-time offenders out of jail.

“We just started it, and you have to walk before you can run,” he said.

Whipker said with a jail population that is nearly 50 people higher than capacity, it sets up a couple of things.

For one, Whipker said the jail is really overcrowded once the population reaches 145, or about 80 percent of capacity.

“It causes a lot of tension (among inmates),” he said.

Overcrowding also makes it hard to separate inmates who may not have the same personalities, he said.

Those involved in the same crime or those who just don’t like each other can’t be kept together, he said.

“There also is a requirement that everyone has a bed and not a portable bunk or a mattress on the floor,” Whipker said.

Each inmate also must have 35 square feet in a cell and 50 feet in dormitories, and shower and toilet requirements also are exceeded when jails are overcrowded, Whipker said.

Overcrowding also leads to staffing issues, Whipker said.

Hoard said jail inspectors have two jobs — making sure jails are meeting standards and making sure sheriff’s departments don’t get sued.

“We’re here to help you any way we can,” he said.

Both Whipker and Hoard recommended the county begin the National Institute of Corrections’ jail planning program. Whipker also discussed the idea with commissioners in July 2013, but it never took off.

“The real thing to do is start considering something instead of doing nothing,” Whipker said.

Jail overcrowding is not uncommon across the state, and about 80 percent of the county jails are over capacity, Hoard said.

Whipker said Jennings County, for instance, is 200 percent above capacity.

Commissioners President Matt Reedy said he would like to re-form a committee to look at having the federal study conducted, and commissioners voted 3-0 to so. That committee includes commissioners, county councilmen, judges, the sheriff and others involved in the justice system.

Reedy said some of the ideas to reduce overcrowding, such as a work release program and alternative sentencing where people are not sent to jail but complete community service or pretrial diversion, might ease overcrowding if combined with the “catch and release” and other programs.

There also was once talk of converting an outdoor exercise area for 28 more beds at the jail, but that project also has stalled.

Reedy said the county also plans to look at the jail with an eye toward possible expansion in the coming years once a new judicial center to house the county’s three courts is built behind the present courthouse in Brownstown. Construction on that center is expected to begin this spring or summer.

Whipker said the first thing that could be done is convert the juvenile detention center to jail space. The center presently has 28 beds, but converting it to house adults would double capacity to 56.

Reedy said he wasn’t in favor of that plan because he has heard judges say they can fill up beds as fast as they are added.

He also said school officials like having the center as another tool to help them in dealing with youth.

After the meeting, Carothers said he knows he won’t see a jail expansion during the remaining two years of his second term.

“The one thing I want to see is the number get to a manageable level — at or below capacity,” he said.

The new jail opened in the summer of 2000 to address overcrowding at the old jail, which has since been converted to the courthouse annex at 220 E. Walnut St. in Brownstown.

Over the years, the population gradually has climbed, but some of those inmates have been sentenced to the Indiana Department of Correction, and the county receives $45 per day per inmate.

By 2008, the average daily inmate count at the jail was 204. Just two years earlier, the average daily inmate count was 139.

On Dec. 31, 1999, the Indiana Department of Correction reported that the Jackson County Jail was the most crowded in the state.

Then-Sheriff Jerry Hounshel said in April 2000 that news should not come as a surprise to anyone who has lived in the area for any length of time.

The old jail, built in 1953, could house 28 inmates, but there were 68 or 69 or about 217 percent above capacity at the time of the department of correction report at the end of 1999.

At that time, Sheriff Herschel Baughman attributed much of the increase to a growing population. Carothers said drug use is behind the present increase.

By the numbers

Jackson County Jail average daily inmate count

Year;Average

2016;226

2015;204

2014;202

2013;231

2012;199

2011;185

2010;197

2009;192

2008;204

2007;176

2006;139

Author photo
Aubrey Woods is editor of The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at awoods@tribtown.com or 812-523-7051.