Not surprisingly, the Jennings County Jail failed another inspection last week. It was another scathing indictment of the facility's problems stemming from being severely overcrowded.
"We expected this," said Sheriff Gary Driver. "I hope the public takes notice. We simply have no choice but to follow the rules and regulations of the state and meet the needs of the inmates in our jail."
The overcrowding issues are nothing new at the jail. The problem is so bad that the county is now proceeding to construct a new and considerably larger jail. Just last week the jail committee announced a tentative location for the new facility.
Kenneth Whipker, the Indiana Department of Correction's executive liaison for sheriff and county jail operations, conducted the latest inspection of the current jail on Friday, July 28.
"The Jennings County Commissioners are in noncompliance status and have failed to properly maintain the jail and provide the sheriff with a facility that meets the Indiana Jail Standards," he wrote in his report on July 31.
Whipker cited six specific areas where the jail is in noncompliance:
• Overcrowding: The jail has exceeded its operational capacity/rated capacity and serious crowded conditions exist. At times the jail has neared or exceeded its rated capacity by 200 percent. During the last eight inspection cycles the jail has exceeded its rated capacity five out of eight years.
• Lack of beds: Whipker noted on the day of inspection that several inmates were either sleeping directly on the floor or portable bunks. "Additional bunks will need to be purchased to ensure that inmates are not sleeping directly on the floor," he wrote.
• Lack of toilet and shower facilities: State law requires at least one toilet and one shower per 12 inmates. The inmate population exceeded this ratio on the day of inspection.
• Inadequate space: The inmate population exceeded the required amount of square footage on the day of inspection. Multiple inmates were forced into cell areas meant to house only two inmates. State law notes cells may be of multiple occupancy, providing there is at least 35 square feet of space per inmate. In dormitories, the requirement is at least 50 square feet per inmate.
• Understaffed: The jail is severely understaffed by 10 custody officers, Whipker wrote. "Additionally, due to the extreme crowded conditions additional staff are required to ensure safety, compliance, jail maintenance sustainment and to meet the inmates' needs," he noted. Staffing is determined by a data driven staffing analysis which has been completed. Staffing is based upon design and not exceeding 80 percent of the jails rated capacity. State law requires sufficient jail personnel in the jail at all times to provide adequate supervision on inmates and to ensure staff and inmate safety.
• High risk factor: The jail lacks the appropriate amount of empty beds to classify and segregate the inmate population upon the implemented classification system. This classification system is based upon the jail not exceeding 80 percent of its rated capacity. The 20 percent of empty beds is required so as to properly house and move inmates based upon the classification/risk upon booking. State law requires sheriffs to implement an objective classification system.
"From the date of this letter, the commissioners will have 180 days to develop a plan of action to correct the above conditions," Whipker wrote in the inspection report. "In addition, a design, build a new jail or add an addition (to the current jail), and a fiscal means to pay for this project will need to be approved within this time period. Failing to develop this plan of action may find the commissioners as being deliberative indifferent to the conditions of confinement at the Jennings County Jail."
Driver said the county is obviously taking action. Whipker is only doing his job to make sure of that, the sheriff added.
"State jail inspectors before have received assurances from other counties before that they were taking action, but then did nothing and had to be warned again," Driver said. "Fortunately, we are beyond that point here. Ken is just stressing the importance of not stopping our work toward getting a new jail."
As of Wednesday morning, the jail population was 201 inmates. The facility has a rated capacity of 104.
"We had a population count as high as 214 a couple of weeks ago and we reached 216 one day last spring," the sheriff reported.
"People need to realize how serious this problem is. I hope many will come to the public meetings and read the newspaper stories so they know the facts. There seems to be a lot of misinformation out there," Driver added.
The next public meeting on the proposed jail will be Tuesday, Aug. 22, at 6:30 p.m. at the Jennings County Government Center in Vernon.
At that session, the Board of Commissioners and County Council will decide on a proposal to purchase real estate at 4665 N. CR 75W for the jail site.