The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana filed a lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of individuals incarcerated at Wabash County Jail, according to Ariella Sult, director of communications.

The complaint claims the Wabash facility is “overcrowded and understaffed, resulting in dangerous, unconstitutional conditions in the jail.”

“The lawsuit against Wabash County Jail is part of a larger pattern of county jail overcrowding in Indiana,” stated Sult. “In 2018, an evaluation by the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute found 77 percent of Indiana’s jails to be overcrowded or at capacity.”

The ACLU of Indiana has filed overcrowding lawsuits in more than a dozen county jails, including six ongoing cases in Allen, Gibson, Henry, Marshall, Vigo and Wabash counties, and one case open for monitoring in Monroe County.

“The hazardous conditions in these jails result in the denial of basic human needs and violations of the U.S. Constitution’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment,” stated Sult. “The ACLU of Indiana is pairing litigation with advocacy work that focuses on reducing overcrowding by reducing the number of people entering jails and prisons, revising extreme laws and policies that drive extraordinarily long prison terms, and expanding evidence-based opportunities for release. To that end, the ACLU Smart Justice Blueprint outlines a path to cut Indiana’s incarcerated population in half while combating racial disparities in the criminal legal system.”

In response to a Plain Dealer request Thursday, Wabash County Sheriff Ryan Baker declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“We do not comment on pending litigation,” he stated.

Class-action suit

The class-action suit was filed Wednesday in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana South Bend Division on behalf of Wabash County Jail inmates Jerry Copeland, John Whitt and James Dutton against Wabash County and Baker. Attorneys for the plaintiffs and the putative class are Stevie J. Pactor and Kenneth J. Falk of the ACLU of Indiana. The class-action suit covers all persons currently confined, or who will in the future be confined, in the Wabash County Jail.

“The Wabash County Jail is old, overcrowded and understaffed and as a result, it is a place where violence between prisoners is common and dangerous conditions prevail,” stated the complaint. “The conditions in the jail, therefore, violate the Eighth and 14th amendments to the United States Constitution. Declaratory and injunctive relief should be issued to address and remedy the jail’s systemic problems.”

A history of overcrowding

The Wabash County Jail regularly houses more than 100 persons and the membership of the proposed class is constantly changing as prisoners enter and leave the facility. The current jail was constructed in 1979, with some renovations in 2006. The jail contains 72 permanent, operational beds. The jail is linear in structure, with various sized cell blocks containing individual cells and a small area outside of the cells that contains tables and chairs, known as a “day room.” The cells that are designed to house more than one prisoner have two beds, arranged on top of one another like bunk beds.

Under Indiana law, county jails are periodically inspected by Indiana Department of Correction (DOC) jail inspectors. The most recent inspection of the jail was conducted in February 2019. At the time of the February inspection of the jail, the DOC’s jail inspector noted that on the day of inspection the jail exceeded its rated capacity and that there was not a bed for all the prisoners. At the time of the inspection, the jail housed 108 inmates, and an additional 64 inmates were being temporarily housed out of the county.

Wabash County Commissioners have in public meetings indicated that the jail is chronically overcrowded and that the county urgently needs a new jail. During one such meeting in October 2019, Baker was given unanimous approval by the commissioners for an interlocal governmental agreement with Elkhart County to house Wabash County Jail inmates at a rate of $40 per day through the end of 2020. County Attorney Steve Downs had previously given his approval to the agreement. At the time, Baker said the county routinely sends inmates to both Miami and Elkhart counties “because we have more prisoners than beds.”

The Wabash County Jail is above its rated capacity 100 percent of the time and has been since at least 2016.

“A jail facility is deemed to be overcrowded long before it gets to 100 percent of capacity. This is because, when a jail exceeds 80 percent of its capacity (and under certain circumstances less than that percentage of capacity), it becomes difficult if not impossible to conduct a necessary classification of prisoners much beyond separating men and women,” stated the complaint. “Classification is essential to protect the safety of both prisoners and staff. By way of example only, inmates with mental and physical disabilities should be separated from those without those disabilities, prisoners who are prone to be preyed upon should be separated from predators, and prisoners who have had previous problems with each other should be separated.”

A lack of recreation areas

The overcrowded conditions prevent adequate classification, producing dangerous conditions, according to the complaint.

“As a result of the overcrowding in the jail, many if not most of the day rooms have bunks installed in them or house inmates who sleep on plastic ‘boats’ on the floor,” stated the complaint. “This causes a great deal of tension because the small size of the day rooms means that prisoners have very little space to maneuver around each other. There are not enough seats and tables for inmates to eat their meals, resulting in prisoners sitting on the floor to eat. Disputes and violence commonly arise among prisoners, due to the lack of secure areas for inmates housed in the day room to store property, disputes overuse of the single cell-block shower, and general tensions due to a large number of people in a very small space.

Also, there is no outdoor recreational area at the jail, according to the complaint.

“The indoor recreation room, which is the only recreational space in the facility, is also often used for housing purposes,” stated the complaint. “When they are housed in the recreation room, inmates sleep on the floor in that room, on mats or plastic boats. There is no toilet or running water in the recreation room, and inmates have been given cups in which to urinate and then dump down a drain in the floor of the room. This is extremely unsanitary, and inmates complain of the smell in the recreation room.”

Because the recreation room is often used for this purpose, and because of the large number of inmates in the jail, inmates are not provided regular recreation, “a fact that exacerbates tensions in the jail,” according to the complaint.

“Recreation opportunities are extremely important for prisoners as physical exercise is essential to maintain physical and mental health and to relieve the tension that is inevitable in an institutional environment,” stated the complaint. “The opportunity for vigorous physical exercise is even more important in an overcrowded jail, as in such a situation tensions escalate and there is an inadequate area within the prisoners’ living space to engage in exercise.”

The library is also sometimes used to house inmates, who sleep on the floor when housed there. There is no access to water or a toilet in the library, according to the complaint.

“When inmates need to use the restroom while housed in the library, they are told to attract the attention of guards. Guards often do not respond quickly, and inmates are forced to wait to relieve themselves,” stated the complaint. “There is insufficient (number of) staff at the jail to adequately monitor the prisoners.”

Inmates with medical or mental health conditions are housed in the general population and “are not seen (promptly) if at all,” according to the complaint.

“Assaults between prisoners are frequent, aggravated by the overcrowded conditions,” stated the complaint.

The jail is locked down daily from approximately 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., according to the complaint.

“While on lockdown and at other times, jail staff frequently do not respond to requests for attention or assistance from prisoners,” stated the complaint. “The only way to alert or contact jail staff is to bang on the doors of the cell blocks. This is extremely dangerous, as jail staff are not aware of and cannot intervene in the event of violence among inmates, or the event of a medical emergency. The lack of meaningful recreation, the overcrowding, and the lack of staff supervision cause continuous tension and dangerous conditions at the jail. The conditions at the jail are objectively unreasonable.”

In addition to the more general points of the complaint, specific allegations have been made by each of the named plaintiffs in the suit. Each of them has filed grievances concerning the overcrowding at the jail. All three claim to have only occasionally been offered recreation opportunities, to have witnessed inmates with mental health conditions being preyed upon by other inmates because of the lack of effective classification in the jail and to have seen prisoners fighting because of the tensions on the block. They have “thus fully exhausted the jail’s grievance system,” according to the complaint.

Jerry Copeland

Copeland has been incarcerated in the jail since July 2019.

Copeland was charged with the murder of Richard Alex Watkins, 31, Wabash, in Wabash Circuit Court in August 2019.

He was previously incarcerated at the jail on several occasions, beginning in approximately 1995.

Copeland is currently incarcerated as a pretrial detainee. A pretrial conference has been scheduled for June 15 before Judge Robert R. McCallen. A jury trial has been scheduled before McCallen at 8:30 a.m. July 14 through 17.

“When Copeland first arrived at the Jail, he was housed in a holding cell that contained four persons. There were no permanent beds in that cell, and the four inmates housed there slept on mats on the floor. He remained in that cell for approximately one week,” stated the complaint. “Copeland was then transferred to a segregation cell that housed four persons, who slept on four beds arranged in double bunks. He remained in that cell for approximately six weeks.

Copeland was then transferred to cellblock 5, where he remains. Cellblock 5 contains six individual cells, each with two bunked beds and a day room. The day room of cell block 5 has two sets of triple-stacked bunk beds installed in it, housing an additional six individuals Copeland has been housed in one of those six beds in the day room since he arrived in cell block 5, according to the complaint.

“Since Copeland arrived in cell block 5, the 12 beds in the individual cells and the six beds in the day room have almost always been full,” stated the complaint.

John Whitt

Whitt has been incarcerated in the jail since October 2019.

According to court records, Whitt was charged with four felonies including dealing in methamphetamine amount of 10 or more grams, possession of methamphetamine between 10 and 28 grams, unlawful possession of a syringe and being a felon carrying a handgun when the defendant has a prior felony conviction within the last 15 years. He also faces a misdemeanor charge of carrying a handgun without a license. A pretrial conference before McCallen has been scheduled for 1 p.m. May 18. A jury trial before McCallen has been scheduled for 8:30 a.m. June 16 and 17.

Whitt was previously incarcerated at the jail on several occasions, beginning in approximately 2005. Whitt is currently incarcerated as a pretrial detainee.

When Whitt first arrived at the jail, he was housed in cell block 4. That cellblock had three individual cells, with two beds in each, and a day room that contained six triple-bunked beds. Whitt was then transferred to the Miami County Jail, due to overcrowding in the Wabash County Jail. Whitt was transferred back to the Wabash County Jail, where he was housed in cellblock 5 for approximately two months. Whitt was then moved to cellblock 4, where he sleeps on one of the triple-bunked beds in the day room, where he remains, according to the complaint.

James Dutton

Dutton has been incarcerated in the jail since October 2019. According to court records, Dutton was charged with three felonies, including two charges of possession of methamphetamine and one charge of unlawful possession of a syringe. He was previously incarcerated at the jail on several occasions, beginning in approximately 1995.

Dutton is currently incarcerated as a post-conviction prisoner. On Feb. 10, McCallen sentenced Dutton to four years, with a jail credit of 120 days and a one-year suspended sentence. Once Dutton has served the equivalent of two years, the court recommends electronic home detention through Community Corrections. The court ordered Recovery While Incarcerated or similar substance abuse treatment or therapy. Upon the offender s successful completion of the clinically indicated addiction recovery treatment program (as determined by the DOC), the judge will consider a motion for modification of the offender s sentence, if appropriate and if agreed upon by the state of Indiana.

When Dutton first arrived at the jail, he was housed in the recreation room, which at that time housed approximately three other people. Those inmates, including Dutton, slept on mats on the floor. Dutton was then transferred to the Miami County Jail, due to overcrowding in the Wabash County Jail. Dutton was then transferred back to the Wabash County Jail, where he was again initially housed in the recreation room, on a mat on the floor. Dutton was then transferred to cellblock 5, where he was initially housed in the day room. After approximately one month, he was moved to a bed within in a cell in cell block 5, according to the complaint.

“Since Dutton arrived in cell block 5, the 12 beds in the individual cells and the six beds in the day room have almost always been full,” stated the complaint.

Legal claims

According to the complaint, the named plaintiffs are “concerned not only for their safety but for the health and safety of other prisoners who are similarly injured by the conditions in the jail.”

“They believe that all prisoners are negatively affected by the overcrowding, lack of sufficient staff, lack of recreation and the problems that result from these conditions,” stated the complaint. “The defendants have been on notice for several years concerning the deficiencies in the jail but have failed to take the necessary steps to resolve the overcrowding and related problems. At all times they have acted (deliberately and purposefully).”

The conditions in the jail result in the “denial of basic human needs and the minimal civilized measures of life’s necessities and amount to punishment,” according to the complaint.

The complaint alleges Baker and Wabash County have failed in their “mandatory duty to establish and maintain the jail in a constitutional manner.”

“The actions and inactions of the defendants are causing the named plaintiffs and the putative class irreparable harm for which there is no adequate remedy at law,” stated the complaint. “At all times the defendants have acted and have refused to act under color of state law.”

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