GREENFIELD — Dave Roberts thought he had his mind made up. A new jail? Perhaps a property tax increase to fund it? Forget it, he thought. His automatic answer to anyone who asked him about the proposal was a quick “No way.”

After all, the people locked in that place at 123 E. Main St. in Greenfield got there because of their own poor decision-making, he reasoned, and his taxes already pay for their meals, their medical care, their security. Surely, they’re living in the lap of luxury over there, Roberts thought.

He can’t believe how wrong he was, he said.

The New Palestine resident joined the first group of community members to tour the Hancock County Jail this week. The sheriff’s department has opened the jail to public tours, its leaders certain citizens will support an expansion if they witness the cramped conditions firsthand.

The tours come ahead of a May referendum, in which voters will be asked if they support the county taking out a loan that would increase property taxes to cover the cost of building a new $55 million criminal justice facility. The project would include a jail big enough to house 440 inmates.

The project would increase property taxes by a maximum of about 14 cents per $100 of assessed value; for a $150,000 house, that’s a hike of $210.

Roberts said he walked out of the current jail feeling “100 percent differently” about the proposed project, and he will encourage his friends and neighbors to take the free jail tours as well so they can make an informed decision.

After about 90 minutes of walking through the facility — seeing the cramped cellblocks, the tiny kitchen, the peeling paint — and hearing firsthand the sheriff’s department’s ideas for the new, larger space, Roberts said he now believes the county has a severe need for a new jail.

“I’m amazed,” he said following the tour. “It’s changed my mind already.”

A reaction like Roberts’ was exactly what Maj. Brad Burkhart, the chief sheriff’s deputy, expected when he organized the tours.

When Burkhart announced in early February he’d host 23 public tours of the jail this month — and even more this spring if interest is high — he said he wanted to give residents a better idea of the struggles the jail staff faces every day and the poor conditions inmates are forced to live in.

Whenever he’s taken a community member or elected official on a tour of the facility in the past, the person always has walked away feeling that jail improvements needed to be at the top of the county’s priority list, Burkhart said.

The groups of residents that toured the place Monday night were no exception. Murmurs of surprise could be heard with every step farther into the jail as Burkhart explained the struggles staff face because of overcrowding.

The current jail opened in 1988 and was built to house 157 inmates, Burkhart told the crowd. It regularly holds 170 or more today. Monday, 211 inmates crowded the jail.

Another 38 local inmates were being housed in LaGrange County to help deal with overcrowding; but if LaGrange called up and told local officials they could no longer house Hancock County inmates, Burkhart said he wouldn’t have the space for those individuals.

Recent changes in state law requiring low-level offenders to serve sentences locally rather than at state prisons has compounded the overcrowding, officials said.

“The commissioners back then said we’d never fill it,” Burkhart said. “They were wrong.”

Some inmates sleep on plastic cots on the floor of cellblocks because there isn’t enough bed space, Burkhart told the tour group. Some have taken to eating their meals while seated on a toilet or on the ground rather than fight for space at the picnic table in the common area of the block.

Having limited classroom space means the jail can offer only a few of the educational programs to inmates that they’d like, Burkhart said. The building isn’t handicapped-accessible, and it’s hard to properly house inmates who use wheelchairs, he said.

“Why would you ever want to come back here?” Joe Carroll of New Palestine burst out at one point, a look of shock on his face.

Like Roberts, Carroll said he left the jail with a completely different perspective on the proposed building project. No, he didn’t want the cost of the construction to fall solely on the backs of property owners, but he realizes now that people booked into the jail shouldn’t be subjected to the conditions is the current facility, and jail officers shouldn’t have to work in it.

“This is something that needs to be done,” Carroll said.

Burkhart told the tour group additional space would be beneficial for a number of reasons. First, the space a new jail offers would allow the sheriff’s department to offer rehab and educational programs they hope will cut down on re-offending. Second, they could more safely house detainees and make a work environment for jail officers.

That concern that the building isn’t as safe as it could be always is at the front of his mind, Burkhart said.

”Somebody’s going to get hurt” he told one tour group blankly. “Somebody is going to get sued.”

Take the tour

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 new jail.

Residents may call the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department at 317-477-1147 to reserve 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. 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.

About the project

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.

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.

The project would increase property taxes by about 14 cents per $100 of assessed value; for a $150,000 house, that’s a hike of $210.

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.

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.

Author photo
Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or