GREENFIELD — County officials are mulling a $35 million project to overhaul the county’s inmate housing system, a plan that includes building a three-story new jail.
Tuesday night, the Hancock County Council and board of commissioners held a special public meeting to present the findings of a months-long study on conditions at the Hancock County Jail, which officers say consistently houses more inmates than there are beds.
The best solution, consultants found, is one locals have long debated: building a new facility estimated to house 438 inmates, more than double the number held at the current jail.
The construction of the estimated $28 million new jail would be the start of a system-wide transition of staff and inmates alike among neighboring county facilities that new construction would connect. The renovations required to accommodate those transitions would cost an additional $6 million, the study found.
The option could also increase operational costs by nearly $3 million annually as more staff members will be needed to accommodate more offenders, the study showed.
Commissioner Brad Armstrong, who is leading the effort to address overcrowding at the jail, told the Daily Reporter the next step is building community support for the project. Then, the commissioners and council will need to identify funding options to pay for the project, which will likely include taking out loans.
Plans call for a new three-story jail to built onto the south side of the county’s low-security community corrections facility, with jail administrative staff taking up residence at community corrections.
Inmates now housed at community corrections — reserved for low-level offenders — would shift to the current jail at 123 E. Main St., a property they would share with the county’s probation department.
The prosecutor’s office, now housed in a historic downtown building just west of the current jail, would move into the probation department’s courthouse offices.
There simply isn’t enough space to meet the needs of the local criminal justice system as state law dictates more low-level offenders be housed locally instead of in state prisons, said representatives from RQAW, the Indianapolis-based consulting firm tapped to study the local system; the jail is overcrowded, community corrections is operating at capacity, and offices are too small.
The jail housed 190 inmates Tuesday, about 33 more than there are beds to accommodate, said Sheriff Mike Shepherd. At one time this year, there were 228 men and women staying there, he said.
“I know people drive by and look at the jail and think everything is fine in there,” he told the crowd of community members and law enforcement officers gathered at Tuesday’s meeting at the courthouse annex. “It’s not so nice and fancy. It’s overcrowded.”
Many days, as many as 50 or more inmates sleep on plastic cots placed on the floor with bedding because there are no open bunks for them, he said.
Consultants expect the county would reach the new jail’s 438-inmate capacity by 2035.
RQAW spokesman Sanjay Patel said the firm looked at every aspect of the county’s judicial system and interviewed staff members before making the recommendation to build the new $28 million facility.
The proposal would provide enough space to meet the county’s needs for the next 20 years, he said.
But after hearing the presentation Tuesday evening, county leaders already had their eyes set on the future beyond 2035.
Councilwoman Jeannine Gray said no one imagined when the current jail was constructed in the ’80s it would exceed its capacity so soon. 2035 is just 17 years away, she said.
She asked RQAW reps how the plan would allow for expansion in the future.
Patel said the new facility could be planned with room for additional growth beyond 2035.
Armstrong said he knows the proposal is costly, and at some point, the county will likely outgrow that space, too.
But it’s the best option, he said.
It gives community corrections, probation and the prosecutor’s office more space.
“This starts the discussion,” he said. “We have a cost, we have an idea of staffing cost. …We need to do our jobs and investigate how we proceed.”
Council president Bill Bolander told the Daily Reporter everyone agrees something needs to be done to address overcrowding, and building a new facility is probably the best solution. But officials need to figure out how to pay for it.
“The population is growing, so we don’t have much choice.”