INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- As an inmate worker inside Marion County Jail II, James Hales was trusted and could move virtually anywhere throughout the four-story privately run jail near downtown.
What he saw during his on-again, off-again incarceration over the course of six months at the end of 2015 and the start of 2016 sickened, frightened and discouraged the man locked up for driving on a lifetime suspended license.
“Something is wrong. Something is wrong there,” said Hales. “It's not an inmate, ‘Hey, I got heroin in my pocket.’ It's guards allowing this stuff to happen, and then when it gets too bad, that’s when someone says something about it.”
That someone is Marion County Sheriff John Layton, under whose authority Jail II operates, after he said he became aware a week ago of suspected heroin overdoses in the facility and authorized a raid by 60 sheriff’s deputies that led to the discovery of cash, drugs and cell phones and resulted in the fatal overdose of one offender who panicked and swallowed a balloon containing heroin as searchers moved in.
“It's not inmates. It's staff,” said Hales. “It's staff not following their protocols. I had a guard from Georgia who asked me to mule something upstairs to the worker dorm.”
Hales claimed an officer on temporary assignment from one of Corrections Corporation of America’s other jails, transferred to help CCA fill out the perpetually understaffed Marion County facility, wanted him to traffic contraband inside Jail II.
“Whatever it was, it was bundled up in a pair of socks. Because I worked in laundry he automatically thought inside his head, ‘Oh, no one is going to check Offender Hales.’”
Hales turned down the smuggling opportunity but observed several other inmates and corrections officers who traded in drugs, cell phones, cash and sex.
“She was doing, you know, sexual favors for the inmates, she was bringing in pills,” Hales recalled of one female officer. “She was making about $300, $400 per trip into the jail with the drugs.
“You have guys creating different relationships with female guards, with male guards.
“There was a female guard there who was bringing in Suboxone, and I just know Suboxone was floating around there left and right because everybody on the worker dorm was trying to buy it up and sell it,” said Hales, referring to a drug often prescribed as a substitute for heroin or painkillers. “I was approached probably four or five times a week, ‘Hey, you want this? You want this? I got this.’
“The counselor was bringing in drugs.
“At any given time there were four cell phones on the worker dorm,” said Hales. “It's the guards. It’s the guards. It's just like with the drugs. They get X amount of money for X amount of product.”
Marion County Sheriff’s Jail Commander Lt. Col. James Martin told FOX59 that eight cell phones were seized by deputies during the Jail II shakedowns that began last Friday night.
Hales said packages containing drugs or cell phones are left in a large wastebasket in an open lobby just off East Washington Street where they can be retrieved by inmate workers emptying the trash and circulated throughout the jail population.
The father of one inmate told FOX59 that cell phones can be purchased inside Jail II for $300.
“Calls are then made from the phones to the person that’s supposed to give the guard the money,” said Hales, “or call grandma and grandma meets up with him, or call mom.
“It's like, ‘Hey, go to my grandma’s house she’ll have… you know…’
“Codes are used all the time on the phones.”
Hales confirmed reports of multiple sources that said the locks on doors of individual cells that rim large dorms throughout the building are broken or defeated by the inmates with a piece of plastic from a broken cup.
“A few of the cells in 4 South… when they shut them, they don’t lock. And the same on 4 North,” he said. “Inmates themselves will put a slider of some kind, making it with stickers from shampoo bottles…slide them in the door and the door will shut but it won’t lock.”
Hales also confirmed information supplied by other sources that through a lack of manpower or refusal to perform their assigned tasks, CCA corrections officers would instruct inmates to carry out some of their security duties.
“They would be given some sort of privilege to, ‘Hey, go do a head count, go check a couple doors to make sure they can shut, make sure there is no kind of obstacle to keep it from shutting.’”
Hales described the activities of one inmate who officers trusted with important documents.
“He would have access to paperwork only guards should have access to, peoples’ charges, this guy was literally helping the jail staff with paperwork,” said Hales. “Not cool.”
The allegation that is perhaps the most disheartening and frightening of all those Hales claimed he witnessed was a gladiator-style battle over food incited by a corrections officer in the Segregated Unit on the jail’s first floor where mentally ill offenders or inmates being held in protective custody resided.
“When you’re in a closed room for an undisclosed amount of time and you’re limited to one thing that you want is food, he was giving away sack lunches to inmates to fight in their cells in Seg just for his personal gratification.”
Hales said his complaints to ranking officers about the staged fights for food were ignored.
“With all the other problems going on that CCA didn’t want to tell anybody about because they wanted to keep it as an inside incident, nobody wanted to be looked at as not doing their job properly because it all comes back on the warden, it all comes back on the assistant warden.”
Lt. Col. Martin as Layton’s jail commander is responsible for the welfare of more than 2500 inmates scattered between three downtown sites and is the ultimate supervisor of CCA’s private management of Jail II.
Martin said he is working closely with Warden Jeff Conway to address the crimes and mismanagement revealed by last weekend’s raid, though deputies are struggling to determine whom they can trust on the CCA staff.
“If you have a dishonest staff member then they could probably overlook stuff,” said Martin. “We believe there were employees who played a part. We’re trying to identify that part and make those links and make all those connections.
“We’re tying the financial pieces and trying to figure out whether or if there was any money exchanging hands during this, too.
“We’ve identified some concerns and with those concerns there’s been some people put off. There’s been people that have quit.”
The commander promoted by Layton to fix problems of suicides, faulty record keeping and over-detentions and mistaken releases of inmates in the main jail last year was asked how could CCA staff and sheriff’s deputies under his authority, either through omission or commission, have allowed drug and cell phone trafficking, sexual contact between officers and offenders, mismanagement, abuse of inmates and lax security fester for so long in the privately run jail?
“Well, your guess is as good as mine on some of this stuff,” said Martin, “and what we’re trying to do through our investigation is identify those layers. Was there anybody within the layer of control not reporting what they should be reporting so there could be an accurate decision on how to fix the issue?
“I know those conversations, especially between me and Warden Conway and a few of his other people over there have had long discussions on just that question, ‘Where’s the layers? How long have we known about it? Who failed to say something about it?’ We’re still trying to identify that.”
Martin said his investigators are doing a thorough review of Jail II operations with an eye on enhanced security.
“Well, anything that goes on in that jail in regards to reporting or incidents or things that have taken place is always referred back over to us and internal affairs does do investigations over there,” he said. “Faith and confidence, especially after something like this, is always built over time. We have no doubt that they’re going to take the appropriate steps and invest the right amount of money to make great improvements especially over this contraband problem that we’re dealing with.”
Marion County pays CCA $10 million a year to operate Jail II, which is home to approximately half of all the inmates under Sheriff Layton’s authority.
CCA’s agreement to house an additional 200 inmates above its contractual obligations to help ease Layton’s crowding crisis in his main jail has left non-residential parts of the converted car factory jammed with inmates as offenders refer to one such site as the “Katrina Room”, so named for its resemblance of the accommodations many hurricane evacuees endured in New Orleans several years ago.
Marion County’s ten-year contract with CCA expires at the end of 2017 and Layton has said there will be no place for the private management company in a new jail complex expected to be unveiled by Mayor Joe Hogsett in December.
Wednesday afternoon, five days after the raid when sheriff’s deputies refused to allow CCA staff to leave Jail II during the shakedown operation, CCA released a statement saying to improve security it was, “mobilizing Special Operations Response Teams and two K-9 contraband detection teams, as well as teams with specialized equipment and training in the detection of contraband communications devices, and physical plant enhancements to limit inmate access to external windows.”
CCA refused a request for an on-camera interview or tour of the jail Thursday.
“We're more than willing to be responsive to your questions and to provide information you may be seeking regarding our company and MCJ II,” wrote CCA Spokesman Jonathan Burns. “I hope we can expect to be given the opportunity to respond factually to information or comments regarding our company (or the operation of MCJ II) that you plan to report going forward.”
Burns also corrected an earlier FOX59 report regarding the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to end the private operation of 13 federal prisons, noting that CCA holds contracts on just three of those facilities.
Back in Indianapolis, two inmates suffering from suspected heroin overdoses as reported in the weeks before Layton said he became aware of Jail II’s drug trafficking problems remain hospitalized.
As an ex-offender who spent time in other suburban jails, Hales wonders what took the Marion County sheriff so long to notice the crisis at Jail II, especially after a rash of suicides and in-custody deaths at other county jail facilities over the last couple years.
“But if everybody just took the time that they’re being paid for, from county tax dollars, to look at the situation, don’t just look at it, act on it. Do it. You got people dying in County One. You got people dying in CCA and it's horrible to know.
“You go to Marion County Jail, I hate to say it, you’re lucky if you make it out.
“That’s how bad it is over there.”