PRINCETON — Gibson County Sheriff Tim Bottoms has consistently reported in recent months that the jail is at or over capacity.
The county commissioners and the county council have had some very preliminary discussions about the issue, but a recent letter from the Indiana Department of Correction gives them 180 days to come up with a plan to solve the problem.
A July 26 jail inspection prompted a letter from inspector Kenneth J. Whipker, a retired sheriff who serves as executive liaison of sheriff and county jail operations to the DOC, that says the jail and county commissioners are not in compliance with state code regulating operation of jails.
The letter says the jail exceeded its rated capacity on the day of the inspection, there was not a hard/fixed bed for every inmate housed at the jail, the number of inmates exceeds the proper ratio for toilets and showers, and the jail lacks sufficient square footage for the number of inmates detained (35 square feet per inmate in a cell and 50 square feet per inmate in a dorm area).
"It was noted that a number of inmates were either sleeping on the floor or in portable bunks," Whipker reported in the letter.
The inspection also notes that the jail is understaffed.
"Moreover, since the jail has greatly exceeded its rated capacity, additional staffing is required just to ensure the safety and security of the facility and meet the inmate needs," the letter says.
Whipker said that with lack of sufficient bed space and exceeding the jail's rated capacity, "the custody staff cannot properly segregate and classify the inmate population. The inability to properly classify and segregate will lead to a critical incident in the jail."
Whipker's letter says commissioners have 180 days to develop a plan of action to meet compliance standards with alternatives to incarceration, reducing the inmate population, increasing bed space — or a plan to build a new jail or expand the current facility. The plan must also include a funding source for all of the compliance issues, according to the letter.
Last month, prior to receipt of the inspection report, commissioner Alan Douglas told county council members that the county needs to look at the long-range needs of the jail, other expanding the current facility or building a new jail.
The commissioners have proposed allocations to acquire property, but no specific plan has been developed yet. Commissioner Steve Bottoms noted that Sheriff Bottoms and former sheriff George Ballard have consistently asked for funding for more staffing at the jail.
Earlier this week in a Gibson Superior Court hearing, Judge Robert Krieg remarked that an earlier decision to modify an inmate's sentence was made, in part, because he was "trying to help alleviate overcrowding at the jail." The defendant was appearing to answer a petition to revoke his probation, and the judge sent him back to jail for not complying with the rules of probation.
The jail, built in 1989, was the subject of a class action federal lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union in 2003 regarding overcrowded conditions. The commissioners signed a settlement agreement in 2007 that stopped the lawsuit, which alleged that the jail was overcrowded 80 percent of the time and was insufficiently staffed.
That settlement stipulated the completion of the community corrections work release center, which freed up some space for maximum security inmates in the jail. The agreement stipulated that the jail population might exceed 137 inmates in certain circumstances, but also called for notification and reduction.
The now 10-year-old settlement also called for adding one additional staff member to the jail, which was done in 2007.