Federal judge ‘happy’ with new Allen County Jail progress, but wants specifics

21Alive News at 5
Published: Jun. 2, 2023 at 1:10 PM EDT
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ALLEN COUNTY, Ind. (WPTA) - Allen County leaders attended a federal hearing on Friday to update a U.S. District Court judge on the progress of building a new county jail.

The county closed on the purchase of 140 acres of land for the new jail on Meyer Road, near the Fort Wayne-New Haven border, on April 14, 2023.

Judge Damon Leichty, of the Northern District, said during Friday’s hearing that while he’s happy with the location, he has many questions about the process. He says he wants details on the final design, like how many rooms, beds, and staff members they’ll need.

He also wanted more concrete plans on how the jail will be funded.

The Allen County Board of Commissioners previously met with a financial consultant on how to fund the project, discussing an increase in income tax. The change would first need to be approved by the County Council.

READ MORE: New Allen County Jail: Who will pay?

Allen County Councilman Paul Lagemann said the initial estimated project cost was $350 million, but the council is looking for ways to get that number closer to $250 million.

Another concern brought to the meeting was a lack of transparency from leaders. Advocacy group Help Not Handcuffs, which has held previous protests about the construction of a new jail, says they want leaders to be more forthcoming about the plans.

Judge Leichty agreed, and set a date for a public forum to hear from the community about the proposed income tax increase. The forum is planned for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 7, at Citizen’s Square in downtown Fort Wayne. More details here.

After that hearing, the council may take action on the proposed income tax ordinance at its June 15 hearing, or another date yet to be determined.

An updated hearing meeting is set for September 29 at the federal courthouse. At that hearing, they requested the county council to attend along with their funding consultant.

Leaders say they estimate construction on the new jail to be complete by April 2027.

Federal judge rules inmates suffering ‘irreparable harm’ at Allen Co. Jail

In March 2022, Judge Leichty found in favor of the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit addressing myriad deficiencies at the Allen County Jail. His order demanded swift action by the sheriff and the county commissioners to address concerns that include overcrowding, staffing, and the treatment of inmates.

The case was filed in January 2020 by Vincent Morris, an inmate at the jail, and was granted class-action status, meaning the matter would be heard on behalf of others presently held at the jail or to be incarcerated in the future. The ACLU of Indiana provided legal counsel for the plaintiff.

As noted in the lawsuit, the Allen County Jail was built in 1981 and has undergone several revisions since opening. It was operating with 741 beds at the end of 2019, with 863 inmates at the facility, according to the Indiana Department of Corrections.

“As a result of the overcrowding, some blocks have prisoners who are sleeping on mattresses on plastic platforms, called ‘boats,’ on the floors of cells because the permanent beds are occupied,” the lawsuit claimed. “This causes an enormous amount of tension as space is extremely tight. Toilets are in each cell and when prisoners are on the floor they have to be stepped over for the prisoners in the permanent beds to use the toilets. The ‘extra’ prisoners in each cell are forced to sleep near toilets.”

In December of 2022, 21Alive’s Linda Jackson took a tour of the current downtown jail with the jail commander for a look at the conditions that are at the heart of the controversy. You can watch her full report below.

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