Chesterton Tribune

 
 

Report: Urgent action needed to ease overcrowding at Porter County Jail

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Of all the places you go in life, let’s hope jail is not one of them.

But if trouble finds you and you do land behind bars, or just a night in the pokey, the Porter County Jail is not a bad place to be.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get a cell and your very own bed to sleep in. But hurry, because they’re going fast.

And that’s how it’s been for almost a decade.

The National Institute of Corrections issued its technical assistance report on the PCJ this week and although it found many nice things to say about the people who run the “very clean” jail, one thing is very certain.

“There is no question that the jail is crowded and under-staffed. Officials must take immediate action to activate and open (the third) pod,” said the 77-page report which was done by the NIC without any cost to the county. Representatives met with county stakeholders in mid August and toured the 156,000 square-foot jail facility just south of U.S. 30 on Ind. 49.

The agency in its report asserts that more officers – preferably a lot more – are needed to activate the jail’s B pod which has been vacant ever since the jail opened in October 2002 – ten years to be exact. Only pods A and C are currently in use.

Pods A and C together have a total of 341 beds with an average daily population (ADP) of about 420 inmates. The report said as many as 85 inmates, a little more than 20 percent, don’t have permanent beds to sleep on and must use portable cots they call “boats” on the floor, a practice that is typical of most overcrowded jails nationwide.

The document says that jail overcrowding and inadequate sleeping conditions in the past ten years have been “driven” by two big policies: using only two of the three pods and boarding state and federal inmates. It specifically recommends the county accept any “discretionary” inmates when the jail is at functional capacity.

Opening up the B pod would add 109 beds. That would give the jail full use of its 450 beds but the NIC said the county should aim for a “Classification Capacity” or 85 percent of maximum capacity for optimal use. The classification capacity with all three pods open would be 383 beds.

It was 2004 when the ADP exceeded its capacity by six inmates. The facility exceeded all capacity levels the following year when its ADP was 489, but the figure included much more state and federal DOC prisoners who were voluntarily housed for a fee paid to the county.

Before 2008, the county received well over $1 million in revenue to house state and federal prisoners but the fees took a dive and last year the collections amounted to just $850,000. Now more than 90 percent of the inmates are county inmates which is causing a drain on the county coffers.

A huge liability

Overcrowding is a problem but it is not the biggest, according to Sheriff David Lain. The most urgent matter in all of this is paucity in PCJ’s medical staffing.

“Never in (the jail’s) history has it had 24 hour medical service. I emphasize that this situation is unsustainable. Inmate medical issues are the single biggest opportunity for liabilities to occur in county government. We cannot afford to keep this system that is decades old in place. We have to upgrade,” Lain told the Chesterton Tribune.

Lain made the same comments in a letter he addressed to county officials and the courts, asking them to “redouble your efforts to help reduce our jail population.”

And redouble they may as the County Council is now in seriously considering opening the B pod. A decision to hire more officers and medical staff could be made in the 2013 county budget hearings.

Currently there are five medical staff employees who work during the day but none during the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. simply because there has never been money budgeted to pay overnight staff. When inmates come into the PCJ, they are medically assessed by jail officers who decide if someone needs to see a physician, and if the situation calls for it, the person is taken to the hospital which can be costly, Lain said.

The PCJ’s County Council liaison Jim Biggs agrees with the importance of staffing medical personnel since it is required by law.

“The Supreme Court has stated that prisoners must have the availability to medical services the same as those who are not incarcerated. It’s constitutional,” Biggs said.

The NIC report did not profile the PCJ’s need for medical staff, only the conditions of the crowding issue. Lain said he has put in a request to the NIC to do another report strictly on the needed medical staffing and in the meantime is creating a Request for Proposals to “flesh out” medical services even before that report is complete.

“It’s that critical,” he said.

Staffing options

The NIC crowding report does however give specifics on the number of jail officers needed to open the third pod.

The most basic option calls for the hiring of 12 additional officers if the county wishes to make no changes to its current population model.

A second option referred to as the “Basic Supervision Plan” would increase personnel by an additional 36 officers, adding one officer to cover the main control overnight shift, more medical officers and some for housing and intake supervision.

An “Enhanced Supervision Plan” seeks more officers on each shift and would require an additional 42 correctional officers.

But in the NIC’s strong recommendation, which Lain said he will also propose to the County Council, the county should hire no less than 16 officers to activate the B pod “as soon as possible” with an acceptable level of inmate supervision.

As of now the PCJ has a total of 50 correctional officers that it budgets for and has done so since the jail opened.

The beef-up would raise the PCJ’s budget by $1.5 million, Lain estimates.

A request of that nature would probably put stress on the County Council which is in the midst of mulling how to make up the $2 million loss this year due to the tax caps, but Biggs stated the Council can afford to increase staffing in the jail as well as developing and maintaining Pod B.

“But in order for us to do so we must prioritize,” he said.

The county’s current economic development income tax fund (CEDIT) is most often used for county roads, building repairs and drainage projects, but it could be redirected, without raising rates, to public safety operations such as the PCJ and Enhanced 911. It would also be more efficient, Biggs said, as often the CEDIT funds collected by the commissioners are put into projects that don’t always use the full amounts and funds sit idle.

CEDIT could be used for recurring expenses as it is collected annually while monies held in reserve funds could be used for one-time projects like drainage repairs, Biggs said.

“If we could agree to redirect CEDIT to fill the void in the county jail and fill the void for E-911, two of our largest issues would be solved,” Biggs said. He believes a majority of his fellow Council members are supportive of the idea for opening up the jail pod with unallocated CEDIT funds.

Lain said the pod could be opened in a matter of weeks pending approval by the County Council. Some “retrofitting” would be required to update the equipment inside costing around $120,000 which Lain said is already available in his budget.

If more personnel is hired to man the third pod, Lain said he would need six weeks for training. Otherwise, activating the pod should be a smooth process.

County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, told the Tribune he would like to see money from the refinancing of the 2001 jail building bonds go toward the third pod. The county netted about $1.3 million when the commissioners agreed to the refinancing last year.

Hiring the staff would be up to the Council, Evans said. The commissioners’ role would only be to approve contracts for the B pod.

Privatizing?

Earlier this month, Evans spoke publicly of his intention to look at proposals from private security firms which could offer services to maintain the jail at lower costs than the county’s. The move could save money, he said, partly because the county would no longer need to provide worker benefits.

Biggs said that the Jail Advisory Board which he served on had looked into the possibility of privatizing operations in 1998 before the current jail was built. An expert from the University of Florida advised that privatization would not necessarily lessen the county’s financial liability and the firm would provide the service to pay benefits to those employees.

From what he gathered from talks with the NIC when they were doing the exit interviews, Biggs said the jail was complemented on its efficiency and chances for improvement with privatization are only slight.

Biggs also said that the jail would have to be brought up to code before anyone was to take over the jail.

Population reduction

Lastly, the report said county officials could introduce new policies or practices that would likely mitigate the high volume of inmates.

The NIC offered a few ideas -- using more home detentions, alcoholic monitoring devices, establishing a halfway house for women in Portage, and providing inmate classification services on weekends to move inmates out of their holding cells.

The most frequent charge in terms of admissions is Failure to Appear, followed by Operating While Intoxicated and Driving While Suspended. More than 70 percent of the inmates are pretrial detainees.

Lain said he will talk with the prosecutor’s office next week on the potential of keeping some with minor offenses out of cells, possibly issuing a summons to those individuals instead of a custodial arrest.

Getting by

Criminal justice and public safety make up a lion’s share of any county’s budget, Lain said, and while the conditions are not favorable, continued cooperation from the judges and prosecutors have been integral in handling the jail crowding problem that has persisted year after year as budgets remained flat.

“We have made due just because we have a tremendous staff of very dedicated, bright officers. We have a well written set of rules that are duly enforced. That’s the only reason we’ve been able to get by,” said Lain who is in his second term as county sheriff.

“It’s my responsibility to make this place better when I leave than when I got here.”

 

 

 Posted 9/21/2012