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Indiana sheriffs meet to talk about jail overcrowding issues

DELAWARE COUNTY, Ind. -- Sheriffs across the state say they're fed up with jail overcrowding issues. This week, they're coming together at the Indiana Sheriff's Association Conference to share their struggles and work together to find relief.

In Delaware County, right now there are 71 more inmates than the jail can hold. In Madison County, there are 292 inmates for 207 beds. Counties all over Indiana are dealing with the same issues. Delaware County Sheriff Ray Dudley said he recently asked neighboring counties to help house some of their inmates, but no one had room. He's preparing for the problem to get even worse.

“The numbers and statistics are telling us that incarceration is going up," Dudley said.

Overcrowding is measured by the structure of a jail building as well as the ratio of officers to inmates. State Jail Inspector Kenneth Whipker continuously notes jail overcrowding as the number one problem on his annual jail reports.

"That sets up a number of other different things with conditions of confinement, lack of bed space, square footage,  commodes and showers," Whipker explained.

Each county is dealing with a different set of circumstances as to why they're overcrowded. Madison County Sheriff Scott Mellinger said they are understaffed by about ten jail officers on a regular basis. There are also a handfull of offenders in the jail awaiting trail that can't post bond.

"We’ve certainly got 50 people on our jail today whose bond is only $500, so those people could get out, but they just don’t have the money," said Mellinger.

The overcrowding issues are creating concerns for both inmates and officers. Mellinger said in his jail, there has been a dramatic increase in inmate fights as well as threats to officers.

"Those officers in the jail are facing nearly impossible odds and they’re getting the job done every day and I just would hate to think about waking up one morning and something happening because of the overcrowding," Mellinger said.

The state's jail services coordinator, Bill Wilson, held a seminar on jail management at the conference. The overcrowding issues are also impacted by the fact that many county jails are nearly 40 years old.

"Back in the 80s, there was kind of a building boom in the state, so what we’re seeing now, is all those jails built in the 80s are kind of outdated," said Wilson.

He said he's encouraging sheriff's and jail administrators to create relationships with county commissioners and leaders to help with overcrowding and structural problems.

"Just kind of put the county on notice that 'hey this is not a sheriffs problem, this is a county problem and it’s going to take the entire county working together,'" said Wilson.

Many sheriffs are meeting with local lawmakers to talk about another reason for overcrowding. House Bill 1006 took effect in 2015, mandating low-level felons serve their sentences in the counties in which they committed the crimes, instead of being housed in state correctional faculties. Some sheriffs are hoping the state will reverse this law.