HANCOCK COUNTY — Faced with a swell of inmates and no long-term relief in sight, county officials are crafting a plan to free up space in the overcrowded Hancock County Jail.
But it’s a temporary fix at best, local officials said.
Sheriff’s department administrators have struck a deal with their counterparts in Daviess County to regularly send local inmates to the Daviess County Security Center for housing.
Story continues below gallery
The inmates who would be transported are those low-level offenders who have been sentenced to jail time — criminals judges are no longer allowed to send to prison because of a change in state law that aims to ease overcrowding at state facilities.
The new sentencing guidelines are part of an overhaul of the criminal code that went into effect last year.
Judges are no longer allowed to send criminals with a one-year sentence or less or those convicted of misdemeanors and Level 6 felonies to an Indiana Department of Correction prison. That leaves county jails, community corrections programs or probation as the only sentencing options.
County officials have been grappling with overcrowding issues at the local jail ever since the new guidelines went into effect.
In a handshake agreement with Daviess County, the sheriff’s department has arranged to send a handful to inmates — starting with approximately 10 at a time — to the Daviess County Security Center, a jail facility in southern Indiana about 130 miles away. Inmates could be transported starting as soon as next month.
The sheriff’s department said it anticipates the agreement with Daviess County will be relatively inexpensive and can be paid for with funds already in the sheriff’s budget.
When sentencing laws changed, the Indiana Department of Correction began allotting county jails $35 per day per inmate sentenced to jail time, an effort to help local facilities pay for the anticipated increase in population. Hancock County will hand over those dollars to Daviess County to cover local inmates’ day-to-day feeding and care, sheriff’s chief deputy Brad Burkhart said.
There will be some expense for fuel and overtime to pay the jail officers transporting the inmates, Burkhart said. If four jail officers transport 10 inmates using two of the department’s secured vans, the trip would cost the department approximately $480 in overtime pay and about $100 in fuel, he estimated.
Tommi Hamilton, jail commander at the Daviess County Security Center, said the facility has ample space to accommodate additional inmates.
Daviess County officials expanded the jail in 2004 to prevent overcrowding but also to make room for spillover from other counties with greater jail populations than Daviess County’s facility normally sees, Hamilton said.
The Daviess County facility has a capacity of 217 inmates. This week, it held 157 inmates, 15 of whom were transfers from the Vigo County Jail, Hamilton said.
Jail officers in Hancock County are regularly trying to cram upward of 170 inmates into a facility meant to hold 157, said Hancock County Jail Commander Capt. Andy Craig.
The agreement Hancock County has entered into Daviess County isn’t unique, Burkhart said. Sheriff’s departments transfer inmates frequently in an effort to help one another avoid overcrowding and to help justify staffing levels at facilities whose populations have fallen, and Burkhart said he’s open to forging similar agreements with other counties with jail space to spare.
Marion County’s facilities are facing a similar space crunch; officials there have opted to ship inmates as far as Kentucky to find space.
Such transfers are not a permanent fix, however, county officials said.
On Thursday, the local jail population was 177; if as many as 20 inmates from Hancock County had been sent to Daviess County this week, the jail would still be operating at capacity, Craig said.
County officials will have to find a permanent solution soon, said John Jessup, a member of the Hancock County Council.
“It’s definitely a Band-Aid fix, but it’s what we have to work with for now,” he said.
Eventually, Jessup predicts an expansion to either community corrections or the county jail.
Earlier this year, the Hancock County Board of Commissioners approved a facilities study of the current jail; that report, which is expected to be complete by the end of the month, will provide county leaders with a better sense of what they need to do to accommodate more inmates, Jessup said.
The jail will not announce which inmates will be sent to Daviess County or when, and officers can’t concern themselves with families disappointed their loved one will be sent to serve their sentences more than two hours away, Craig said.
Overcrowding causes too many other problems, like adding costs associated with providing inmates access to mental health, dental and other medical care.
The agreement will give inmates a little more room to breathe and will take pressure off the jail officers tasked with monitoring them, Craig said.
“When you eliminate overcrowding, you’ll eliminate that stress on the staff,” he said.
This week, the Hancock County Jail held 177 inmates. It has the capacity to house 157.
County officials are preparing to send inmates to the Daviess County Security Center in southern Indiana an effort to ease overcrowding. The Daviess County facility housed 157 inmates this week; there is space to hold 217.