A cell block for the male inmates at the Hancock County Jail. Staff photo by  Tom Russo
A cell block for the male inmates at the Hancock County Jail. Staff photo by  Tom Russo
GREENFIELD — Plans to transform the basement of the local jail into a dormitory with bed space for some 30 inmates have been called off as county officials turn to another temporary solution to alleviate overcrowding at the facility.

County leaders say they won’t spend $300,000 to renovate a storage room in the basement of the Hancock County Jail into a wing large enough to house 34 inmates after county officials couldn’t agree on the number of jailers needed to staff the section.

Instead jail administrators have struck a deal to send as many as 40 offenders to a jail in northern Indiana in hopes of freeing up space in the local facility, an option officials say is cheaper than renovating the basement.

Plans to remodel the jail’s basement were unveiled two months ago, but had yet to gain much traction because local leaders disagreed on how many jailers were needed to properly staff the new wing.

Hancock County Sheriff’s Department officials who oversee the jail say they would need nine new officers to properly cover the roughly 2,000-square-feet space; but members of the Hancock County Council — the board tasked with allocating funding for the project — said hiring that many staffers at once was out of the question.

Adding new jail officers to the department’s roster would cost the county about $60,000 in salary and insurance for each additional person, said council president Bill Bolander. The council would need to find half a million dollars to add nine jail officers at once, he said.

“There’s no way we can afford nine,” Bolander said.
That decision sent sheriff’s department leaders back to the drawing board in hopes of finding another way to decrease the ever-growing inmate population locally.

They say for most of July they squeezed 230 inmates into a building intended to house 157.

Tuesday’s population was 204 after dozens of offenders were sent to serve their sentences at the LaGrange County Jail, a facility near the Indiana-Michigan state line, a nearly three-hour drive from Greenfield.

Capt. Andy Craig, the jail commander, said nearly 40 inmates will be sent to LaGrange over the next week.

Those being transferred are low-level offenders who have been sentenced to serve jail time as punishment for a crime. Craig said when choosing who to transfer, he was careful to select inmates who don’t have disciplinary records or medical issues that might cause trouble for his counterparts in LaGrange.

About ten inmates are transferred at time, and, for security reasons, the learn they’ll be moved only an hour before they are loaded into a van and transported, Craig said.

When each inmate has properly served their time, a local jailer will have to drive north to bring them back to Hancock County, even if it means driving three hours north to bring a single person home, he said. LaGrange will not release local inmates into their community, he said.

Though the county won’t have to write a check to LaGrange County for housing Hancock County inmates, the transfer will still be costly, said sheriff’s chief deputy Maj. Brad Burkhart.

The state pays the county $34 per inmate every day in exchange for housing them. When the county has to send inmates elsewhere, they forfeit that funding for every person they send away, Burkhart said. At 40 inmates, that’s between $30,000 and $40,000 a month — money he believes could be used to hire new staff or fund a larger project to address overcrowding, he said.

And transferring inmates north is only a temporary solution, he said. The jail is still overpopulated, he said.

Inside the county jail, inmates like Crystal Cosby say they’re frustrated with the close quarters and wish elected officials would come up with a way to find more space.

Cosby was booked into the facility in May and she’ll be there until March as she serves a sentence in a theft case.

She realizes she committed a crime, and she doesn’t expect the jail to feel like a five-star hotel, she said, but some simple accommodations would make the days she spends languishing inside a little easier.

Cosby is being housed with 29 other women in a block that’s intended to fit 18. She sleeps on a plastic cot placed on the floor of the 7-by-12 foot cell she shares with two other women.

There is little privacy as the 30 inmates tries to share one shower, two telephones and enough seating for about 12, she said. Some even sit on a toilet just to have a spot to eat their meals, she said.

“I know we’re criminals,” Cosby said, “but we’re not animals.”

The only way to truly fix the overcrowding issue at the local jail is to build a new, larger facility, Burkhart said.

A study released to county officials in April suggests the best plan to deal with the overcrowded facility is to overhaul the county’s inmate housing system and build a new three-story jail — a plan estimated to cost $34 million.

County commissioner John Jessup, who ran his campaign last year on a promise he’d find a solution to the overcrowding, agrees it’s time to start identifying funding for the project.

Whether officials like it, the county is going to to have to build a new jail, he said. And the county is going to have to hire new jail officers to staff it, Jessup said.
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