Marion County Jail population slump leads to cell block fixes


INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — It has been about five years since Marion County Sheriff’s Colonel James Martin has had so much elbow room inside the Marion County Jail.

“We’ve had a drop in our population and that’s about 300 beds, and what that’s allowed us to do is close down housing units like this and do a full scale maintenance check of locks, windows, lights, fix some plumbing and do a full repaint of the facility.”

The cell blocks’ last fix ups coincided with an influx of state prisoners returning home to serve their sentences and crowd the jail’s population.

“The last four or five years it’s been very hard and difficult because of our number,” said Martin. “We’ve had every bed filled, and then sometimes we’ve had over capacity where we’ve exceeded our capacity to a point where you can’t get in here, and so it’s made it tough.”

Martin stood in the middle of cellblock 2-T, typically home to 52 offenders deemed well behaved enough to be assigned to the jail’s general population.

Instead of being surrounded by offenders serving time or considered too dangerous to release on bail, Martin surveyed a handful of Building Authority employees who have been gradually making their way through the jail, fixing typically crowded cell blocks in a maintenance project set to wrap up in April.

“You can’t effectively, efficiently run a jail with every bed full,” said Martin. “That’s the misconception out there. You can’t do it. You have ‘hard times’ with ‘keep separates’ and classification levels, it’s impossible to fill every bed and go and then do maintenance on the place.”

Throughout its three downtown facilities, the Marion County Jail can house 2,507 offenders.

Last Tuesday, the number of inmates stood at 2,179, including 269 offenders serving their state prison sentences in the local jail.

“I think we are a lot further along as a city than we were five years ago,” said Martin, referring to recent bail and criminal  justice reform initiatives to incarcerate the most dangerous offenders or those less likely to commit another crime while out awaiting trial. “When we look at our booking numbers for ’19, I think we’re a little under what we were for ’18, and I think it’s just been faster processing, and we’ve had some other things come along with automated bond schedules and some real improvement on the speed on how we can get the job done.”

Martin said a boost in starting salaries and the reassignment of highly trained and better paid sheriff’s deputies allowed Marion County Sheriff Kerry Forestal to expand the number of detention deputies on duty in the jail and enhance safety by reducing overtime.

“We put on 110 detention deputies last year. In 2019, we lost about 32,” said Martin even though those deputies saw their starting salaries increased twice to $36,000 per year. “With our hiring campaign, we were able to bring more people in, which helped offset that balance. We still had people leaving, but we’re bringing the people in.”

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office competes for employees not only because of the state’s low unemployment rate but also with suburban sheriffs who can offer even better salaries for correction officers overseeing fewer dangerous offenders.

For the past five years, MCSO has been the target of a class action lawsuit brought by former offenders who contend they were illegally held for hours and days beyond their ordered releases by Marion County Superior Court judges.

In depositions as part of the federal lawsuit, sheriff’s officials admitted faulty software fixes to its inmate management system contributed to the over detentions.

The lawsuit is still pending.

Martin said improved MCSO offender processing and bail reform that qualifies more low level/low risk arrestees for pre-trial release has reduced the jail population to better include the most dangerous offenders and those with the greater potential to commit another crime while awaiting trial.

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