HANCOCK COUNTY — As county officials examine the results of a study highlighting a growing need for more staff and space at the local jail, one thing is clear: The clock’s ticking.
That message is spelled out clearly in a report recently compiled by an architectural engineering company hired by the Hancock County Board of Commissioners to identify options to combat the county jail’s rising inmate population.
The study, completed by Indianapolis-based RQAW Corporation, recommends constructing a $25 million three-story structure that would hold a new, 212-bed jail and provide an additional 100 beds for inmates in the lower-security community corrections program. Under the plan, the existing jail, which opened in 1988, would be cleared, leaving the space as a reserve for a future expansion.
The high ticket price of the project leaves county officials to wrestle with potential funding schemes while conditions in the jail become increasingly urgent.
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On Thursday morning, 175 inmates were booked into the jail, a building designed to accommodate 157, said jail commander Capt. Andy Craig. For the past three years, the jail’s population has hovered above its designed capacity, which places stress on jail staff and inmates and increases the chances of fights breaking out, officials say.
Inmate numbers are expected to rise to 205 in a decade and to 245 inmates by 2036, the report projects.
The proposed jail, despite being large enough to hold an additional 50 inmates, could be staffed with the existing number of guards because of a more efficient building layout, said Sanjay Patel, one of the engineers who completed the study.
The report represents the latest in an ongoing saga concerning overpopulation at the Hancock County Jail, a trend that’s troubling governments across the state as local elected officials grapple with the effects of a shift in state law that sends more inmates to county jails instead of state facilities.
Senate Bill 1006, which was passed in 2013 and went into effect in January, requires judges to sentence low-level felons to local facilities as opposed to prisons in an attempt to ease overcrowding at state facilities.
Commissioner Brad Armstrong, president of the board, said the board is still sorting through possible funding schemes for the study.
While he’d hoped to see more affordable options that could provide relief in the short term, the numbers laid out in the report display need for a significant overhaul.
Commissioner Tom Stevens said although the board has not decided what its next move will be, such a sizeable project could require a referendum that might result in a property-tax increase.
But the board will examine all of its options thoroughly before making a decision, he said.
Armstrong said the board plans to meet with its financial consultant to walk through possible avenues for funding.
“Safety’s the number one role of government,” Armstrong said. “What we’re looking at is pretty expensive, but it’s a solution that’s needed.”
Over the course of a day, Craig regularly coordinates with staff at community corrections, a facility located immediately west of the jail, to scrounge up whatever bed space he can for inmates.
On Thursday, 18 inmates were being kept in a portion of community corrections that’s been cleared out to provide temporary relief for the jail, Craig said.
With another 22 inmates currently being held in Wayne County while various repairs are made to the jail, Craig said the number of inmates the county is currently responsible for is well above 200. Those inmates will likely return to the local jail after renovations wrap up in the fall.
The crammed facilities have made it difficult to separate male and female inmates, Craig said. Though men and women are always kept in separate cells, inmates have begun chiseling through the concrete walls to pass notes to one another, he said.
And the packed cell blocks places stress on everyone — inmates and jail officers alike.
“The longer things stayed crowded, the easier it is for people to get tense and agitated,” Craig said. “It’s basically putting you in a ticking time bomb.”