HANCOCK COUNTY, Ind. (WISH) — Leaders in the Hancock County Jail say they need more space and more staff to deal with overcrowding issues.
The jail commander said the jail is consistently 30 to 40 inmates over capacity, in part because of new sentencing laws.
The new sentencing laws are putting offenders in county jails instead of prisons, and the inmates are staying for longer periods of time.
“County jails weren’t designed for that. County jails were designed for pre-trial waiting to go to court, and then be sentenced,” said Chief Deputy Brad Burkhart.
The change puts pressure on staff the jail commander says is already stretched too thin.
“They’ve got so much going on, they have so much to do, mistakes happen. Little mistakes happen, big mistakes happen,” said Jail Commander Captain Andy Craig. “It’s draining on them to put up with this for as long as they have.”
Craig said his staff is scrambling to book inmates, feed them and take them to court. Plus, there aren’t enough showers, tables or beds to go around.
“It causes inmates frustration, staff frustration, and that usually tends to lead to fussy people and fights,” said Craig.
That’s what can make the frustrating situation dangerous.
“It’s unsafe because you don’t have enough people to adequately handle the situation because everybody’s tasked with doing more,” said Craig.
It’s also costing the county more money, the biggest cost being medical care. The longer the inmates are in jail, the more medical and dental care they need.
“It’s going to continue, it’s going to keep increasing, we’re going to see increased medical cost, we’re going to see costs with food,” said Burkhart.
Craig said the Hancock County Jail isn’t equipped to give long-term medical care.
“I have no place if you come in with a prosthetic leg, or you have some sort of illness, or you have emergency surgery…you’re occupying a receiving cell or a padded cell, because we don’t have that 5-10 cells for medical,” said Craig. “Those medical people now occupy critical bed space when you’re trying to classify inmates across the entire facility.
Craig and Burkhart said jails across Indiana are seeing overcrowding issues because of the new sentencing laws.
“We’re not an exception. It’s all over. My staff does a good job of working, but I think it takes a toll on them. Day in and day, they’re just getting hammered,” said Craig.
Now, the county is contracting a study to find a solution. The answer could be a new jail, more staff, or more home detention and community corrections sentences. But all those solutions take time. Craig and Burkhart said it would take years to build a new jail or add on to the current jail.
“For the short term, it’s too far out. It won’t do us a lot of good. They’re taking some good steps and reviewing it and making a plan, but if a decision is made to build, you’re 4, 5 or 6 years out before you actually finally move in. Even if it’s a modified construction, it’s still going to be a couple three years down the road. So the planning’s good, but it’s a little behind the curve for where we’re at. There is no easy short term fix,” said Craig.
The jail staff told 24-Hour News 8 they need help now, the most urgent need being additional staffing.
“We just need more staff. When you have three people [deputies] on the floor and fight or incident breaks out, or somebody has a heart attack, I’ve got one person left to deal with it. You need to be able to account for days off, sick days and still have enough staff to adequately run a facility even when it’s overcrowded,” said Craig.
“I’ve been telling for the last year, year and a half, the county commissioners and county council that we’re going to see this. Think we’re on the right track. But think we’re maybe behind the eight ball a little bit,” said Burkhart.
County Commissioner Brad Armstrong said he believes the county is being proactive by addressing the issue now.
“We last had a jail study in 2010. We had a drop in jail population through 2013 but have started to see a rising trend in 2014 and 2015. When we made the 2016 budget we wanted to allow for a new study for our jail needs. In January, as planned, we contracted for a new study. We understand that new State sentencing guidelines will force us to house more inmates, we want to fully understand the effects and be proactive in planning for future needs. Last week we had a successful kick off meeting,” said Armstrong in a statement.
Armstrong said he expects the study to be complete in May.