Inmate transfer program hits legal snag

GREENFIELD — Plans to move inmates from the overcrowded Hancock County Jail to a facility in southern Indiana have stalled as county officials debate potential liability issues.

The Hancock County Sheriff’s Department reached a verbal agreement last month to send inmates to the Daviess County Security Center — a facility in Washington, Indiana, about 130 miles away — in an effort to alleviate space concerns at the local jail. But the county attorney said the plan is flawed, as it fails to detail who assumes liability if the county is sued over an incident at another facility.

Hancock County attorney Ray Richardson said the county’s insurance provider will not protect local taxpayers in such a predicament; legal fees and settlements typically covered by insurance would instead have to be paid with money from the general fund. 

Richardson has asked the county commissioners to require the two sheriff’s departments to pen an agreement that would formally transfer liability to Daviess County, whose facility can hold 217 inmates but was running 60 inmates under capacity when talks began.

Maj. Brad Burkhart, the sheriff’s chief deputy, fears Hancock County will miss out on the available space in Daviess County while lawyers go back and forth over wording for an agreement he said is unnecessary.

Daviess County’s facility has accepted inmates from other counties for more than 10 years without legal paperwork, said Tommi Hamilton, the security center’s jail commander. They’ve never worried about having such written documents in place because sheriff’s departments across the state typically operate with the same codes of conduct and disciplinary guidelines for inmates, she said. 

While Daviess County wouldn’t necessarily abandon its agreement with Hancock County just because the latter wants a written agreement, there are other county jails from across the state interested in space at the facility, Hamilton said.

When Hancock County approached Daviess County last month about moving low-level offenders, the security center was already housing about 15 inmates transferred from nearby Vigo County, which also has reported overcrowding issues, Hamilton said.

That’s since grown to include Vanderburgh County, Martin County and a handful of other places; on Wednesday, there were 44 open beds left, and the space allotted for female inmates was already full.

Burkhart said he’s disappointed the process has been delayed. If legal issues aren’t arising in other areas, they should not be a concern locally, he said.

“It would be nice if they’d let the people who know how to run the jail, run the jail,” Burkhart said. 

The inmates who would have been transported to Daviess County were low-level offenders sentenced to serve jail time — criminals whom judges are no longer allowed to send to prison because of a change in state law.

The state now reimburses county jails $35 per day per inmate to house them. Daviess County agreed to house the inmates as long as Hancock County transferred its state funding to cover day-to-day care, Burkhart said. 

Commissioner Brad Armstrong said he’s not ready to take risks with taxpayer money. He’s spoken with leaders from other counties who admit their jails trade inmates without legal agreements; but he doesn’t think such behavior is wise, he said.

“Any time one body of government does something with another body of government, you need to have everything boiled down,” he said.

The Hancock County Council already had started the process of approving the transfers when the insurance issues came to light.

Last week, the council approved the creation of a special fund within the sheriff’s department budget that would hold money dedicated for the care of inmates being held in Daviess County, Councilman Bill Bolander said.

Now, that fund could sit empty, and Bolander admits he’s frustrated problems arose.

“I wish they could see there is a greater good here,” he said.

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.