Between 2007 and 2018, seven annual Indiana Department of Correction inspections of the Wells County Jail noted the facility was overpopulated on the day of the review and there were not enough beds for all the inmates — including the last three inspections from 2016, 2017 and 2018.
The 2018 jail inspection, a copy of which was provided to the News-Banner in December, occurred Sept. 25 by Chance Sweat and the jail population that day was 101. As the official rated capacity is 94, there were not enough beds for all inmates.
The 2017 jail inspection, a copy of which was also provided last month, occurred Sept. 28 by Sweat and the jail population that day was 96 — again in violation of state administrative code and county jail standards. But the highest population count presented to the county commissioners from that year came just 23 days prior to the inspection, when there were 112 inmates at the Wells County Jail.
Sweat “strongly” recommended that year the county deal with the capacity issue, although no such note was made in the 2018 inspection.
According to Indiana administrative code, it is required for each sheriff to “develop and implement an objective classification system” that should “include written procedures for overriding an inmate’s objective classification result to accommodate local needs, for example, physical plant design (and) program availability.”
Sweat wrote in the comment section of the 2017 report that, “Objective classification becomes limited once 80 percent of rated bed capacity is reached. Class action litigation concern. Letter of non-compliance issued.”
The classification process assesses each inmate’s “custody and program needs,” according to a summary of a 1998 publication distributed online by the U.S. Department of Justice National Institute of Corrections.
“An effective system of inmate classification will reduce escapes and escape attempts, suicides and suicide attempts, and inmate assaults,” the summary added.
The classification system — such as minimum security versus maximum security — is something the jail started to use recently, Sheriff Scott Holliday said Friday, and it does make it harder to maintain when the population counts go up.
And the population fluctuates; Friday’s count was 92 so every inmate had a bed.
At the Dec. 17, 2018, meeting of the commissioners, Monte Fisher — then sheriff — reported the jail population was 98 and said the population had been in the double digits for a couple of weeks.
The commissioners receive an updated population count at nearly all their meetings and the highest count reported to them in 2018 was 112 in early November — or 18 inmates beyond capacity. According to minutes of the commissioners meetings, the count was 110 in two other separate reports from the sheriff (one in early October, one in early December), and a third was 111 (in the middle of October).
During a discussion in September 2018 with the Wells County Council, Fisher said the jail was 11 inmates over capacity. However, the highest population count during his tenure was 121 and a previous administration had about 130 in the jail at one point, he said.
During the next council meeting in October, Mahnensmith asked how the jail was handling the increased population.
“We’re still doing all right,” Fisher responded.
At the second October 2018 meeting of the commissioners, he said they try to get the numbers down but then other inmates come in when some are transferred out.
At the following meeting of the commissioners in November, Vice President Kevin Woodward said the count of 112 was too many inmates to have in the facility. President Blake Gerber concurred, adding they need to get the count back down to the double digits.
That same week, at the November council meeting, Mahnensmith noted the jail is still running at a fairly high population. Member Chuck King asked if there was anything that could be done to address that.
“It’d be through the courts,” Fisher responded.
He also said most of the inmates are held on pre-trial bond awaiting disposition of their cases. Meanwhile, the DOC requires that the jail hold inmates locally for local hearings, which increases their numbers.
Of yesterday’s 92 inmate count, 53 are being held on pre-trial bond — 29 for Wells Circuit and 24 for Wells Superior, Holliday said.
He also said he is aiming to foster a good working relationship with the Wells County Prosecutor’s Office and the two judges when it comes to such figures.
“Communication is key,” Holliday said.
The judges keep an eye on the number of inmates being held on pre-trial bond, and they are working to improve that process — although it takes some time to get cases through the court system, Holliday said.
Meanwhile, he said the commissioners and the council have done their best to help maintain the operations of a jail that was built in 1986.
Due to the state’s criminal code changes of 2014, the county is housing local inmates who commit Level 6 felonies, or the lowest-level felonies. They were once under the auspices of the IDOC but are now under the care of the jails in which counties sentence them.
The highest Level 6 felony count of 2018 available and presented to the commissioners was April 16’s count of 23 of the 93 inmates, or nearly 25 percent of the jail population.
While the county has a history of housing inmates for neighboring counties when needed — such as seven of the 91 inmates in August 2017 — the county also continues to be a holding facility for other IDOC inmates, and they come with a per diem charge from the state to help supplement the jail’s budget.
At last month’s county council meeting, Fisher presented his monthly income report. Through November, the DOC paid the county $345,075 in per diem fees in 2018.
In 2017, the county received a total of $397,970 — making up almost 85 percent of the county’s total generated income ($470,112.65) for the year when looking at all methods of income.
The highest DOC inmate count available that was presented to the commissioners in 2018 was 13 such inmates — once each in March, November and December.
— — —
The capacity concerns in 2017 did not prohibit the county from receiving positive remarks elsewhere in that year’s inspection, though.
It was noted the “jail was clean and well organized. Staff were professional and open to suggestions/recommendations.” Also: “Male/female offenders were well behaved. Felt safe, food good, medical sufficient, and staff treated them fairly.”