HANCOCK COUNTY — Up to $300,000 could be spent to create another temporary solution for overcrowding at the county jail.
County officials are considering renovating the Hancock County Jail basement, currently used for storage, to create temporary space for 34 inmates as the county council and commissioners mull a permanent solution for creating more space.
Meanwhile, the commissioners have asked the county council to move forward with borrowing to support a $34 million new jail, plans for which were presented earlier this year.
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The commissioners point to a jail study released last spring that found current facilities are inadequate.
In April, consultants told the public the best plan is to overhaul the county’s inmate housing system and build a new three-story jail — a plan estimated to cost $34 million. The study suggests the jail population — which reached 205 on Thursday in a facility built for 157 — will grow to 438 by 2035.
And jail officials said they need relief now. In nearly every block, inmates are sleeping on plastic cots on the floor because there aren’t enough bunks, said deputy jail commander Keith Oliver. Almost every day, the jail is holding more than the 157 inmates intended when it was built in the 80s, officials say.
The jail basement renovation project, paid for by funds the county has on hand, would not be the first time county officials have funneled money into a temporary solution.
In January 2016, county officials spent about $50,000 to redesign the county’s low-security community corrections facility — located next door to the jail — to add 16 beds for low-level offenders. Last August, county officials agreed to send some offenders serving sentences to other counties to serve their time in an effort to free up space in the local facility.
Now, officials are looking at about 2,000 square feet in the jail basement. The space is currently home to department equipment, including spare uniforms, and jail records dating back more than a decade.
Before any work can be done, the state jail inspector must approve the county’s plans, said Hancock County Sheriff’s deputy chief Brad Burkhart.
The Indiana Department of Correction sheriff and jail operations division — which oversees jails across Indiana — will recommend the county hire additional staff for the basement dormitory; also, county officials must show progress toward a permanent solution for the overcrowding, Burkhart said.
The office will want to see a timeline for the new jail project or documentation that financing options are being discussed and worked toward, officials said.
The jail basement currently houses the department’s detective division as well as its evidence locker, but officials say some open spaces could be reconfigured.
The space would be used for a dormitory, day room and bathrooms to accommodate 34 men, plans show, Burkhart said. Jail classes and meetings for inmates, like Alcoholics Anonymous, can be held in a meeting room next to the dormitory.
Commissioner John Jessup told county council members the renovation would cost about $280,000 and asked them to OK spending as much as $300,000 to cover construction costs, security measures and furniture.
Shifting some of the inmates currently packed into cells upstairs will help ensure inmate and jail staff safety, he said. Officials have long been concerned that tight living quarters leads to fights and incidents that could open the county up to a lawsuit, which could be costly for taxpayers, Jessup said.
Officials say the money spent on a renovation won’t be a waste because the space can be used even after a new jail is built. Preliminary plans call for community corrections and the county’s probation department to move to the current jail once a new facility is constructed.
Adding space for 34 inmates will buy the county some time, Oliver said.
But it won’t be long before the jail population outgrows that space, too, he said.
“This will be a starting point,” he said.
July 2015: State law changes, and judges are no longer allowed to send low-level offenders to an Indiana Department of Correction facility. Inmates sentenced to less than a year in jail must serve their time at the county jail.
January 2016: County officials spent about $50,000 to redesign the county’s low-security community corrections facility — located next door to the jail — to add 16 beds for low-level offenders.
August 2016: County leaders agree to send some offenders serving sentences to other counties to serve their time in order to free up space in the local facility.
April 2017: A study shows the best solution for dealing with a growing inmate population is to build a new county jail, a project estimated to cost $34 million.
June 2017: The Hancock County Commissioners ask the county council to consider taking out a loan to pay for a new jail.
June 2017: County officials present a plan to renovate about 2,000 square feet of space in the jail basement to make room for 34 inmates.