Ind. sheriff says jail overpopulation, understaffing not a problem

Overcrowding is an age-old problem and the jail’s smaller staff does not put inmates, employees or the public in peril

By Zach Evans
Evansville Courier & Press

VANDERBURGH COUNTY — While a recent Indiana Department of Correction jail inspection report lauded the Vanderburgh County Jail as a model for other state lockups, an investigator also took issue with the understaffed jail crew and inmate overpopulation.

Eric Williams said jail, though, that overcrowding is an age-old problem and the jail’s smaller staff does not put inmates, employees or the public in peril.

As of the Oct. 10 inspection, the jail is maintained by a staff of 75 employees, 28 percent fewer than the minimum recommendation based on a 2003 analysis of the jail’s design before it opened in 2006.

Kenneth J. Whipker, executive liaison for the Indiana Department of Correction Sheriff and County Jail operations, who conducted the investigation, said in the report that key supervisory and control post positions were not manned on the day of inspection.

“These key positions and personnel are needed to improve and enhance the safety and security of (the) facility, sheriff’s personnel, inmate safety and, moreover, public safety,” the report stated.

He “strongly” recommended to the

Vanderburgh County Council to provide funding to meet minimum staffing requirements at the jail.

But for a county government that carved $4 million out of general fund spending for next year, adding 29 county employees or expanding the jail to ease overcrowding is a tough sale.

“We’re constantly looking for new means and mechanisms to work more efficiently and effectively and not have to bring on additional staff,” said Williams, now in his second term as sheriff. “It’s not a secret that we need more people in the jail, but we’re getting by with use of overtime and other tools.”

While short-staffed, at least in terms of the 2003 analysis recommendations, the inspector does not explicitly say conditions are unsafe.

“I don’t believe it’s unsafe,” Williams said. “Can it be more safe — yes. If I had double the amount of people, we’d be safer ... but I don’t think we are in peril at this time.”

As of now, seven positions are unfunded as a result of a drop in user fees over the last half-decade, Williams said. And two other jail positions are now unfunded because a grant can’t cover the costs anymore, he said. However, councilors and the sheriff’s office are looking for other ways to fund the positions.

“We would love to have 29 more employees in there. We’d be able to get a lot more done with a lot less overtime, but 29 new employees comes at a fairly significant cost,” Williams said.

The day of the jail inspection, inmate population was 13 above its rated capacity of 553.

Whipker recommended Vanderburgh County Commissioners to consider alternatives to keep inmate population below capacity, including expanding the current facility.

Whipker also recommended a Planning of New Institution study which would look at alternatives to incarceration, bed space and usage, bond schedules, pretrial incarceration, plea agreements and, if needed, the recommended size or addition to the jail to accommodate a growing population.

Jail crowding has been an issue since the jail opened in 2006, and Williams said inmate population is a communitywide problem that requires the efforts of the entire criminal justice system to rein in.

At the end of the report, Whipker said the Vanderburgh County Jail was well maintained, clean and that it’s an “excellent operation” that “should be used as a model for other facilities.”

The report also commends the inmate living area inspection process — similar to a military barracks inspection, the report notes — referring to it as an “outstanding program for inmate accountability and behavior modification.”

Williams said the high marks make him feel “pretty good,” but said it’s largely due to the dedicated staff, who, despite being spread thin, ensure a model facility.

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