INDIANAPOLIS — Marion County Sheriff Kerry Forestal and his staff told more than two dozen Marion County judges Thursday that twice this week inmates were poised to riot or ambush sheriff’s deputies at the county’s new Adult Detention Center.

Forestal and the judges met in an hour-long video conference to discuss logistical, security and operational challenges in making defendants available for court dates with judges still in their offices and courtrooms in downtown Indianapolis, several miles away from the new Community Justice Center in the Twin Aire community.

While technological glitches have thrown sand into the gears of Marion County’s criminal justice system as judges and defendants can’t always hear each other over a video court link or some inmates cannot be found to attend their remote hearings, what was most shocking to Presiding Judge Amy Jones were her visits to the ADC and courthouse this week in the days following a pair of attempts by inmates to seize control of cell blocks in the new jail facility.

“I feel like it was a powder keg ready to blow,” Jones told her fellow judges and the sheriff during the video conference. “The temperature, I think, is really rising in that facility, and I want us to be very mindful of our safety.”

Of the approximately 2400 inmates incarcerated in Marion County, only about 300 remain behind at Jail II, a privately run jail on East Washington Street.

The former Marion County Jail is empty.

“The night before last we had intelligence that they were going to try to take over one of the cell blocks,” Forestal told the judges. “We have two deputies working on each floor with 900 prisoners and it was designed to have 12 deputies in four permanent locations.”

Forestal’s staff told the jurists that corrections deputies are outnumbered 140:1 in the ADC.

An ideal ratio would be closer to 30:1.

“We called in 15 reserves and myself and Colonel James Martin, three deputy chiefs and a couple of majors,” to quell the potential Tuesday night cell block takeover Forestal told the judges.

24 hours later there was another attempt by inmates to attack corrections deputies.

“We had a situation last night where the inmates notified that there was possibly an injured individual in a housing unit,” said Deputy Chief Tanesha Crear, “and when the supervisor got to the housing unit, inmates had some headwraps on their heads and how the inmates had positioned themselves in the other unit, the supervisor was afraid that there was a planned ambush, and so they tried to call for additional deputies.”

“An additional supervisor came over to assess the situation before they even entered the housing unit. Once they were able to get about nine additional deputies up to that location, one of the individuals in the housing unit looked out the window and said, ‘There’s a lot of them,’ and so they began to retreat, the inmates, back to their normal spaces. They were able to get most of them to a secure portion which was the recreation area so they could lock them in so they could see if there was an inmate in need of attention or any attention at all. That is the reality that we have here daily, regularly.”

“It’s a dangerous, dangerous situation,” Crear warned. “I just don’t know how any of us would feel when or if we get a call that a deputy has been killed. That’s where we are at this time.”

One inmate took his own life early this month in the newly opened facility which Forestal said would have added security to prevent suicides.

While Judge Jones told the assembled judges and sheriff that, “candidness is important,” the leaders of Marion County’s courts and law enforcement systems were holding an emergency meeting behind virtual closed doors to address significant public safety and criminal justice issues and express opinions that are not normally heard in more formal public settings.

“I think it was important that everybody heard what I heard and what I saw yesterday when I was on site,” said Jones. “There’s a lot of from what I can tell, Sheriff, you’re still dealing with a lot of building issues, just creature comforts that every one of us take for granted that you are dealing with, toilets that are backed up and not flushing, in a brand new facility we’re dealing with technology that’s not up and running. And a situation where it sounds like the inmates are not able to get their commissary.”

Those concerns match complaints received by FOX59 that inmates have successfully tripped fire suppression sprinklers, broken out plexiglass windows and negated the offender wristband identification while video court issues have thwarted remote court hearings and lawyers have been left locked inside visitation rooms with their clients and no way to summon sheriffs deputies to permit them to exit save for an email to a public defender supervisor left to contact the jail.

“Its just like this plumbing issue,” said Forestal. “They said we could bring in all the plumbers we want on the weekend at one single time if we would just close three cell blocks and move them all over. But we don’t have three cell blocks to tell them to just go for the weekend and come back on Monday when we reopen so they’re going to have to be more flexible to get these plumbing problems fixed cell block by cell block and not expect us to take 400 prisoners and double pack them into a different area.”

While work continues on readying the new court building next door, judges are still presiding over cases in their courtrooms at the City County Building necessitating the return of defendants from the ADC back downtown for hearings.

“We gotta work our way around this remote hearing problem,” said Judge Jones, “and I need you guys to be aware that there’s potential danger in transporting those folks because they are going to look for any opportunity to breach and potentially put us, civilians, deputies, people, in a dangerous situation.

“It’s that serious of a crisis right now.”

While attempting to staff the new jail and absorb supervision of the 1100 inmates formerly housed at Jail II and continuing to provide security at the CCB and for the courts that remain there, Forestal said his detention and court deputies are stretched thin.

“We just don’t have the manpower,” he said. “For two years, at a minimum, I at first dealt nicely with the Controller and then more aggressively dealt with the Controller and saying, ‘We’re gonna double the number of people when we took in the old private jail in this population with less employees.’

“The Controller said, ‘Sheriff, your budget is being reduced by $17 million.’”

$17 million is the approximate annual cost the sheriff paid to Core Civic to operate Jail II.

During a media briefing with Mayor Joe Hogsett Wednesday morning, Controller Ken Clark said the sheriff’s 2022 budget was fully funded to Forestal’s request.

City records indicate the sheriff’s 2022 allocation from the General Fund increased by $7.6 million over the previous year.

“I would much rather say that we’ve worked well with the Controller and we’ve tried to do it as long as we could but there’s some lines being drawn,” said Forestal. “If there was some creation on the part of the Controller, I think they would have found some funding.”

One judge suggested the sheriff apply for CARES Act money allocated by the federal government to tide Marion County and Indianapolis over during the economic slowdown due to the COVID pandemic.

Judge Jones said she has offered to help MCSO write a proposal to access some of that funding.

“We want to be able to make sure that the sheriff gets the chance to stabilize because, right now, I’m just gonna be real frank, there is not the manpower with which to provide the adequate level of security that is needed in the new courthouse. They’ve not even be able to start training over there, getting used to familiarization, getting used to that building because they’ve had a lot of crises of their own just getting that stabilized.”

While the construction calendar called for the courts to begin moving into the new courthouse in mid-February, and even though 25 courtrooms are said to be completed, construction continues throughout the building and courtroom staffs, decimated by COVID quarantines and remote hearings, are not yet prepared to undertake training in their new facilities, leading one judge to suggest any relocation be delayed until summer.

Forestal said the expiring contract with Core Civic to operate Jail II played a key role in forcing the sheriff to move his entire operation while significant parts of the Community Justice Center were still under construction.

“Well, that was our plan,” he said. “We tried to stay with the plan they had from the beginning. We didn’t have any options. As a matter of fact, we extended Core Civic, there was no money to keep Core Civic on. First off, there was an ordinance that said, private jails ended in January.”

By next week the remaining 300 inmates at Jail II will be housed at the ADC.

As a result, Forestal is shifting deputies from current assignments to duties inside the jail, putting training staff, reserves and volunteers to work operating the video court or going cellblock-by-cellblock this weekend to help inmates track down lost paperwork or personal items as the sheriff claims he is down one hundred deputies and one hundred support personnel from being fully staffed.

While the Controller has offered to pay for private security guards to stand watch at the CCB and free up deputies to be reassigned to the ADC, Forestal seems reluctant to surrender that constitutional duty, the protection of judges, at least while the courts remain in their downtown location.

As a result of scheduling and uncertain court calendars, the judges have been more lenient in granting delays and stretching out court dates while it appears the Marion County Prosecutor has relaxed time limits on the discussion and approval of plea agreements to resolve cases short of going to trial.

One judge feared that the lack of security inside the ADC would present, in his words, “a constitutional violation of risk,” and speculated that the courts might be forced to put a cap on the number of inmates held in the jail and offenders would have to be released to home detention while awaiting trial, to which a representative of the Probation Department indicated she wouldn’t have the staff to monitor additional defendants.

“They were on the brink of a riot,” said Judge Jones, reflecting on her visits to the jail this week. “Having heard what I heard directly from the sheriff and saw what I saw the other day when I was over there, I mean, it was a little unnerving quite frankly.”

Ralph Staples, a former deputy prosecutor and veteran defense attorney, said he and other lawyers have been frustrated in attempting to represent their jailed clients in court this month.

“It sounds like a lot of things weren’t thought through before this move was implemented,” he said. “You’re supposed to have contingencies if things go wrong. You’re supposed to have back up plans when things don’t work as they should.”

“Often times we didn’t know where our clients were. I had court proceedings where I later learned that the client was quote, unavailable for transport, close quote. The video system that has been installed for consultation is not operational.”

“I’ve heard hearsay about some issues. There have been fights, so I’ve heard. There have been problems with sanitary products, no soap, no toilet paper.”

“You would like to think those people who are under the custody and care of the sheriff are safe and would not be subject to violence while in the facility.”

Forestal admitted to the judges that despite more than five years of planning and construction, the cooperation on opening the Community Justice Center left a lot to be desired.

“Everybody sitting at the table more often would have beneficial to us all,” he said, “but that did not happen.”