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ACLU: Open Porter County Jail third pod to end 'inexcusable overcrowding'

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union has written a letter to Porter County attorney Betty Knight saying that if the County does not make a “good faith effort” in six months to comply with the standards set by state law regarding adequate staffing at the County Jail, the Department of Corrections could take legal action.

ACLU attorney Kenneth Falk was given a tour of the jail on July 30 in light of complaints about the crowded conditions.

After the inspection, Falk concluded in a letter dated Aug. 12 that County officials should see to it that the jail’s B-Pod is set up to house inmates.

“Obviously, the fact that B-Pod has never been opened because of lack of funding for necessary staff is extremely problematic and, in my opinion, inexcusable,” Falk said in his letter.

Falk raises the same concerns expressed by the National Institute of Corrections last year and the state DOC which reported “the county council borders on deliberate indifference for not providing the necessary funding for proper staffing and the operation of an existing pod which would provide 109 additional beds.”

The overcrowding status gives the county exposure to liability claims for staff or officer injuries, Falk said.

The jail’s A-Pod and C-Pod have been in operation since the facility opened its doors in 2002 and together hold up to 345 beds. With all three available, the beds available would be 454.

As of this morning the jail has 471 inmates, said Sheriff Dave Lain, which is 50 more than the average daily population reported in 2012. The jail uses portable cots for those inmates who do not have permanent beds which is typical of most overcrowded jails.

Lain said he finds Falk’s letter “not adversarial at all” as the overcrowding issue has been discussed repeatedly over a period of years.

Lain said he will ask the Council to hire 11 additional jail officers to man the third pod, two of whom will attend full time to the inmates’ medical needs.

He also estimates that $150,000 will be needed to restore the B-Pod to fully functioning condition. The jail, over time, has been using B-Pod parts to repair or replace equipment in the other two pods, such as plumbing and computers. Lain said there is enough money in his rainy day funds to cover that cost, but not the staffing.

County Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, who acts as the jail’s Council liaison, said that the overcrowding issue will be a major discussion during this fall’s Council budget hearings. The Council has scheduled a second reading of the jail’s budget on Sept. 12.

How the County will be able to support additional staffers has yet to be decided, but Biggs believes the funds will need to come from the revenue collected from the county economic development income tax, as the costs would be recurring. The other option would be from the County’s General Fund, which has been dwindling due to property tax caps.

Using CEDIT money would only be a short term solution, Biggs said, and the long term solution would be for the Council to collaborate with the County Courts System on alternatives to reduce the number of offenders incarcerated and steer more into rehab programs organized by Porter County PACT and the Substance Abuse Council.

Biggs said the jail has been overcrowded and understaffed since “Day 1” and he credits “intelligent employees” for being able to manage the problem for the past 11 years, but now the County is “out of time” and must figure out a way to fund the necessary staffing.

“How much more patient can we be? The time to act is now,” said Biggs.

County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, wrote a follow up letter to the Council on Aug. 15 saying the Council and Commissioners need to work together on the issue and requests that the same committee which worked to find the jail a company to provide medical services “continue to explore the solution” with the Sheriff’s Department hoping that it can come up with “a concrete plan, proposal and financial budget for the opening of the B-Pod.”

One of the committee members, County Councilwoman Sylvia Graham, D-At Large, said the solution may not please all sides but she believes her colleagues will find a viable solution. She was credited in Evans’ letter for actively exploring possible ways to work with the community on solutions for jail medical staffing.

“We care very much,” she said.

In his letter’s conclusion, Falk said he believes that a modern jail like PCJ would “appear to fully satisfy all constitutional requirements if it was properly staffed.”

If the County fails to make an effort, the DOC could petition the Circuit Court to prohibit confinement of persons in all or part of the jail, or recommend that a Grand Jury be allowed to examine the jail, said Falk.

 

 

Posted 8/26/2013