HANCOCK COUNTY — Residents can tour the Hancock County Jail to see conditions there firsthand before voting on whether to increase property taxes to build a new facility.
May primary ballots will include a question asking voters if they support a loan that would increase property taxes to cover the cost of building a new $55 million criminal justice facility, including a jail big enough to house 440 inmates.
This month, the sheriff’s department will open the doors of the secure facility to those who want to see the cramped conditions inside, officials announced this week.
Those who support the project argue the place is severely overcrowded, understaffed and in need of structural improvements. They say the additional space a new jail offers would allow them to more safely house detainees and offer rehab programs they hope will keep offenders from returning.
If residents are going to weigh in on the future of the jail, they should have a chance see the facility as is it now, said Maj. Brad Burkhart, chief sheriff’s deputy.
So, he’s scheduled 23 tours on seven days in February, and he’s asking residents to sign up for a visit.
Groups of 15 adults will be allowed in at time, and each tour will last about 90 minutes.
Residents will have a chance to see renderings of what a new jail might look like, and they can ask questions of current jail staff. Their interactions with inmates will be limited for security reasons.
If interest is high, more tours will be scheduled before the spring vote.
Burkhart, who has been at the forefront of the fight for a new jail, said he hopes the tours give residents a better idea of struggles jail staff members face every day and the poor conditions inmates live in.
The current jail opened in 1988 and was built to house 157 inmates. Now — thanks in part to changes in state law requiring low-level offenders to serve sentences in jail rather than at state prisons and because of drug problems leading people to commit crimes, officials say — the daily population regularly totals 170 or more. This summer, inmate population hit a high of 230 inmates.
County leaders have tried to ease overcrowding by adding more beds to the county’s low-security community corrections building and transferring inmates to other county jails for holding; but it isn’t enough, officials say.
Some inmates sleep on plastic cots placed on the floor in the common area of their cellblocks or squeezed inside the 7-by-12-foot cells, so a space meant for two people can be shared by three. And jail staff has been forced to turn away certain educational and drug-treatment programs they could offer inmates because there isn’t space to have such gatherings, officials say.
Burkhart said he’s given talks around the county in recent months, showing stakeholders photographs depicting the strain overcrowding has caused; but it’s nothing like actually being inside the place and seeing it firsthand, he said.
County Commissioner Brad Armstrong agreed, saying the tours should make for more informed voters.
No matter the referendum’s outcome, the county’s elected leaders will need to make their case to taxpayers that a new jail is necessary. And the conditions inside the jail are just evidence of that need, he said.
If a majority of people vote against the proposal in May, county leaders could still move forward with other funding options or wait about a year to put the project on the ballot again.
Should a referendum pass, the tax increase to fund the project would be shared by every Hancock County property owner, even those who have reached their tax cap.
Under state law, homeowners can be taxed no more than 1 percent of their home’s assessed value, unless the increase is approved by voters. The cap for farmland and rentals is 2 percent. The cap is 3 percent for any property not classified as a home, rental or farmland — such as a business.
Armstrong thinks a visit to the jail will be eye-opening for many voters.
“It’s too bad that we have to spend this money, but the problems are just going to get worse if we don’t,” he said.
Voters can tour the Hancock County Jail, 123 E. Main St., Greenfield, before deciding whether to support increasing property taxes to construct a $55 million criminal justice facility that would include a 440-bed jail.
Residents may call the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department at 317-477-1147 to claim a slot.
The tours will last about 90 minutes and are limited to 15 people at a time. Only adults older than 18 are allowed to participate.
The tour dates and times are:
- Feb. 12: 5-6:30 p.m.; 6:30-8 p.m.; 8-9:30 p.m.
- Feb. 15: 5-6:30 p.m.; 6:30-8 p.m.; 8-9:30 p.m.
- Feb. 16: 4-5:30 p.m.; 5:30-7 p.m.; 7-8:30 p.m.
- Feb. 17: 10-11:30 a.m.; 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m.; 1-2:30 p.m.; 2:30-4 p.m.
- Feb. 20: 5-6:30 p.m.; 6:30-8 p.m.; 8-9:30 p.m.
- Feb. 22: 5-6:30 p.m.; 6:30-8 p.m.; 8-9:30 p.m.
- Feb. 24: 10-11:30 a.m.; 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m.; 1-2:30 p.m.; 2:30-4 p.m.