Lights out longer, more inmates hurt than expected in Marion County Jail power failure

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INDIANAPOLIS — Full electricity was out for more than 90 minutes Monday morning, and 28 inmates were hurt, most as the result of fights and attacks, at the Marion County Jail II in downtown Indianapolis.

Ice damaged Indianapolis Power & Light lines near Jail II, a privately run facility at 730 East Washington Street, just before 3 a.m., cutting power to the building. At 3:15 a.m., a civilian employee assigned to monitor the county’s contract with the jail operator, CoreCivic, was advised of the outage, and sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene a half-hour later and advised IPL of the electrical failure.

A backup generator which failed at the outset of the crisis kicked in intermittently at 4:04 a.m., but it wasn’t until 4:33 a.m. that IPL announced it had restored full power to the building.

By the time the lights came on, more than two dozen inmates had suffered injuries, some accidental, others intentional.

In the first hours of the crisis, Marion County Sheriff Kerry Forestal told reporters that Jail II went dark for just 10 minutes with a total of 11 inmates injured.

Twelve hours after the electricity was cut, Forestal addressed the media with updated information.

“The entire building was without light, so, if there were injuries, there were two that I read of that had slipped in water because of what I understand they started to build their own small fires for light, I would assume, and when they were using water, somebody slipped, and there was a hip injury and I believe a broken leg.”

Eleven injured inmates were treated at Eskenazi Hospital, and five of them were returned to the main jail by mid-afternoon. Forestal said a total of 17 inmates were treated at the scene for “soft tissue” injuries.

Forestal added that while radios and surveillance cameras, along with all interior lighting, were dark during the outage, inmates remained locked in their dorms where fights broke out.

An IMPD source told FOX59 that responding officers were warned that some inmates had suffered cutting wounds, though MCSO Deputy Chief Tanesha Crear said she did not know if the inmates were injured by weapons.

“We entered the floors, and once we had enough deputy and law enforcement personnel on site, we were able to order the individuals inside the housing units to have a seat on their bunks, and I believe the amount of law enforcement officers that we had and initial force assisted us in regaining order,” said Crear. “There were some individuals who had told us that they had been assaulted. There was some minor blood spots.”

“I don’t know that there was disorder,” said Forestal. “There was incidents of violence from inmate- upon-inmate.”

Forestal said no law enforcement personnel were injured in the incident.

CoreCivic, which is paid approximately $16 million annually to house a maximum of 1,135 less violent offenders in Jail II, depends on privately trained non-law enforcement personnel to secure the five-story former car factory four blocks east of the main Marion County Jail.

CoreCivic Public Affairs Manager Ryan Gustin issued a statement that read:

“The back-up generator was last inspected and found to be in proper working order Friday, February 19th.”

Forestal was asked if he found it unusual that a generator that was reportedly inspected just three days ago would fail when needed.

“We understand that there was a faulty switch,” he said. “It did go on and off, so it was operating somewhat, but that’s not what we want. We can’t have a somewhat… they should be testing it for a full load annually. It’s required the same as we do, you have to do it once a year to be sure it goes, and then you test it weekly.”

CoreCivic said a contractor would examine the faulty generator Monday, and Forestal said MCSO Internal Affairs would investigate the assaults while the contractor would examine the faulty electrical system.

“He’s the person when we have a problem like now that he will be the person who will show displeasure with CoreCivic, and if there’s any problems with them to answering, we would expect he would be the first person they would contact.”

CoreCivic, formerly operating as Corrections Corporation of America, was first engaged more than a decade ago to relieve severe overcrowding at the Marion County Jail as MCSO sought to reduce its footprint during a struggle to hire additional corrections deputies and closed some annex facilities it was operating and sought to house felons charged or convicted with less serious crimes in a more communal environment.

“I can’t say that one incident is gonna drop our trust,” said Forestal. “They’ve been longterm partners with the county and the city. They’ve had over a thousand or more prisoners for more than a dozen years. That does end at the end of this year because the past City-County Council has said that no private jail will operate in the new Criminal Justice Center, so, whether we like it or not or whether they’re a good partner or not, that ends at the end of the year.”

The new Marion County Jail with space for nearly 3,000 inmates is expected to open at the $571 million Community Justice Center in the Twin Aire neighborhood by the end of 2021.

Forestal said that while investigators will continue to attempt to piece together what happened inside Jail II before dawn Monday, he is not confident authorities or the jail’s operator or even inmates will ever fully know who was throwing punches when the lights went out.

“There’s no doubt that somebody took advantage of the dark because we can only have the witnesses who can tell us what occurred.”

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