GREENFIELD — There are times when Missy Wilcher is the lone figure in khaki amid a sea of orange.

Some of the inmates staring back at her are charged with domestic battery. Others with rape, even murder.

A sergeant at the Hancock County Jail, Wilcher often enters the cell block alone while her fellow officers — maybe four, overseeing as many as 180 inmates — are busy with other duties.

For years, jail officers have pleaded for more staffing, citing the potential for violence as the population in the overcrowded facility continues to swell. The scenarios are no longer hypothetical, officers said; they’re happening.

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Two incidents in recent months have underscored the need for more manpower within the cramped facility, officials said: a man serving time on a burglary charge was beaten until inmates broke his jaw; a convicted child molester was attacked in his cell by fellow inmates who knew of his crimes.

Hancock County Sheriff Mike Shepherd is pleading with county officials to find funding to hire more jail officers in 2017. Department leaders say the facility is short 12 officers but has asked the county to hire at least four to keep up with the influx of inmates caused by the change in state law that requires low-level offenders to serve their sentences locally instead of at state prisons.

But county officials said they might not have the money — 12 officers would cost more than half a million dollars — and it’s too early in the budgeting process to make any promises.

Violence breaks out at the jail several times a week, said Sheriff’s Capt. Andy Craig, the jail commander. Records show there have been 83 violent disturbances inside the facility so far this year — that amounts to one every other day — including 18 fights and 20 times an inmate battered a fellow inmate or was abusive toward staff. 

That’s more in six months than the department saw all last year, when 77 incidents were recorded.

Officers are outnumbered by inmates at times 30 to one, raising security risks, Craig said. And the many tasks included in overseeing daily operations — booking new arrestees into the facility, doing hourly checks, passing out meals — makes inmates harder to monitor and leaves fewer people to respond in times of crisis.

While jail officers catch and break up some outbursts before anyone is injured, others are severe enough to leave inmates hospitalized, including one that occurred in recent weeks that required surgery for an inmate who was attacked.

The sheriff’s department has made similar hiring requests for at least three years after a 2013 jail study suggested the facility was short a dozen officers to keep staff and inmates safe, Shepherd said.

The study used state prison staffing guidelines to make its claim; the Indiana Department of Correction does not set specific staffing standards for county jails.

A new law requires certain offenders to serve their sentences locally instead of being sent to state prisons, which has inflated populations at county jails across Indiana, officials said. In 2012, the average daily population was 135; by 2015, that had risen to 157 — the facility’s capacity. Today, the jail regularly houses 170 inmates or more.

Shepherd wants to see at least four jail officers added to the 2017 budget, which would take the staff of 25 up to 29.

But the council juggles similar requests from every department, and there’s never enough funding to cover every hire, Councilman Tom Roney said.

Hiring four officers would cost the county about $200,000 a year.

“There is no money unless you take if from somewhere else,” Roney said.

Six officers work staff the facility during the day, while five work overnight. The department experiences the same hiccups as any other workplace — vacations, sick time and family emergencies — that cause additional shortages.

When offenders have court hearings, another jail officer is pulled away from the facility to walk them to the courthouse.

On Monday, the facility was operating with five officers during the day shift.

Two were free to patrol the facility, checking in on inmates and serving as a deterrent to fights, but department protocols require others to stay at a single post for the shift.

One jail officer is required to stay in the jail’s command center, watching surveillance cameras, answering the phone and greeting visitors; one officer mans the booking station, processing new inmates and assisting those being released; another officer is assigned to transport offenders to and from court hearings or other facilities, often walking or driving alone with an inmate at their side or in the backseat.

Those patrolling the floor handle an array of tasks, Wilcher said, including answering questions from inmates, conducting hourly rounds, handing out food, medicine and supplies and standing guard at the door when an attorney makes a visit.

With a staff that small, there’s no such thing as backup, Wilcher said.

She’s tough, but it’s frightening at times, especially when her duties take the female officer into a cell block with 25-plus male inmates. Wilcher often wonders what those sentenced offenders — the ones who feel they have nothing else to lose — might do.

“What does a battery-on-an-officer charge matter if you already know you’re going to prison for the rest of your life?” she said. “What does a rape charge (matter)?”

Wilcher’s concerns have increased as numbers in the facility have climbed. Inmates become agitated more often now because they are kept in tight quarters with little space to themselves, with some being forced to sleep in makeshift beds on the floor, she said.

When it gets to be too much, inmates lash out, said Lance Lawson, who is serving time in the jail on drug-related charges. There are 25 men living in his cellblock, which is only built for 15.

“I feel like I can’t breathe,” Lawson said. “There is no space for anyone to do anything.”

He’s seen people grow violent over little things, he said.

Craig wonders if having more hands on deck would have prevented some of the violent outbursts in recent weeks or put his officers in a better position to calm tempers before anyone was hurt.

David Paterson, a convicted child molester who was ordered in May to serve a 12-year sentence after he sexually assaulted a young boy in a bathroom at the Greenfield Walmart, was awaiting transport to a state prison when a fellow inmate jumped him inside his jail cell, officers said.

Paterson never spoke up about the attack; instead, jail officers found him sporting fresh bruises while they were handing out lunches the day of the incident.

Paterson has since been sent to a state prison to serve the remainder of his punishment.

Another inmate required two surgeries to repair a broken jaw after he was similarly beaten by a fellow inmate.

Jordan Ellis, who was serving time for a burglary charge, was accidentally placed in the same cell block as his angry co-defendant, he told the Daily Reporter. Ellis said he was cornered in his cell and underwent two surgeries to repair his shattered jaw. He’s back in the jail now but being kept in a single cell for his safety.

Because these fights happened inside cells, outside the view of surveillance camera, they were tough to catch, Craig said. But an extra set of eyes, not distracted by other tasks, might have noticed sooner a crowd forming to watch the fight; even seeing every head turning in one direction could have alerted jail staff something was wrong, he said.

Commissioner Marc Huber said the county needs time to adjust to the new sentencing guidelines; he’s hesitant to approve new hires without firm data.

“What if we hire four, five, 10 new officers, and they change the law again?” Huber said. “Then we’d have to let those people go, and no one wants to do that.”

That’s little comfort to officers like Wilcher, who worries it’s only a matter of time before a staff member is seriously hurt.

“Of all the places to skimp,” she said, “the county jail staff shouldn’t be one.”

Pull Quote

“I feel like I can’t breathe. There is no space for anyone to do anything,”

Lance Lawson, an inmate housed with 25 men in a cell block built for 15, on issues created by overcrowding at Hancock County Jail.

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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.