June 8, 2015

With New Jail Unlikely, Old One Will Have To Do

A holding cell in the current Marion County Jail 1. - Ryan Delaney/WFYI

A holding cell in the current Marion County Jail 1.

Ryan Delaney/WFYI

There’s a part of the Marion County jail network that’s nearing a century old. A tunnel connects Jail 1 to the city-county building, a block away.  Well, directly, it leads to the parking garage of the government building. It’s not a scenic journey.

"You can see this is badly in need of repair," said Louis Dezelan, a colonel in the Marion County Sheriff’s Department, as we walked under Washington Street and construction of the new transit terminal.

The tunnel is dim with a low ceiling. It’s also damp and oddly a little windy. But it’s an important part of the jail’s infrastructure, as inmates go to trial.

"We’ll move about 300 people a day from here, to the courts and back. About 80,000 transports a year," he said.

"We walk them through the tunnel, usually it’s in chain gangs of up to 10 people, with deputies of course going with them. At times there are chain gangs going past civilians in the city-county building, even sometimes in the same elevator as a judge, which of course is not a good situation," Dezelan said.

Even newer parts of the jail system need upgrades. The kitchen needs renovations and some security doors stick.

Odds are looking slim that a new jail and courts complex will soon be built for Marion County. There is limited support for the justice center proposal sitting before the city-county council.

Despite the headaches of the old system -- where inmates are housed in three different buildings and transporting them to different facilities and court hearings is labor-intensive – Sheriff John Layton said “the fossil,” as he calls it, will do for at least a few more years.

"It’ll have to," he said in a recent interview with WFYI.

City officials spent two years picking a site, taking bids from developers and studying proposals to build a new, consolidated criminal justice center complex. By constructing all of those facilities on the former GM stamping plant just west of downtown, criminal justice in Indianapolis was supposed to be modern, efficient and cheaper in the long term.

All parties involved, from the mayor to community groups, agree there’s a need for a new jail system in Marion County. But a few months ago, it became clear that was about the only thing still in agreement. There was worry from community group IndyCAN that expanding the jail’s capacity was the wrong way to improve criminal justice.

And an independent analysis from city-county councilors showed potentially higher operating costs in early years than the selected developer laid out.

Finally, Sheriff Layton says he lost faith this week. In an attempt to win over more council support, WMB Heartland Justice Partners trimmed 450 beds and the stand-alone sheriff’s headquarters from their proposal. It reduced construction and operating costs by tens of millions of dollars.

But Layton says no one from WMB talked to him first. "Bottom line is that for the people of Marion County, that’s a lot of money and they deserve the best and it better be pretty close to perfect," Layton said. "We were on the road, but it just hasn’t worked out so far and I don’t see that it might."

Tonight’s city-county council meeting is likely the last chance councilors will have to call up the proposal for a vote. It would take a special procedural move, since a committee did not approve the original measure.

After June, several legal and financial agreements expire and the current proposal would likely dissolve, sending the prospect of a new justice center back to the beginning.

Still, Layton is confident construction of a new jail complex will be well underway before he leaves the post in three years.

"Do you think I’m gonna let them forget about it?" he said with a laugh. "No, we need it that bad. There’s no plan B at this point, but I think that will come very quick."

Layton says it’s probably best to take up the justice center again with a new mayoral administration. But the developer warns by starting over, a new jail system could be up to five years away from reality. And costs will only go up.

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