The Journal Gazette
Sunday, September 12, 2021 1:00 am

Jail away from downtown urged

Study says county will need 1,500 beds in next decade

JAMIE DUFFY | The Journal Gazette

With a growing Allen County inmate population projected to be nearly twice what it is today, officials commissioned a report that offers two options, one of them building a new jail.

Elevatus Architecture did not include a possible construction cost in its report, obtained by The Journal Gazette, but one local official put the price tag at $150 million.

Another option would be constructing an addition to the four-story jail at a projected cost of $21 million to $23 million, the Allen County Justice Study said. But that expansion would add just 236 beds to the 741-bed facility even though at least 1,500 beds could be needed in the future, the $60,000 study predicts.

The study has not been publicly released by the Allen County commissioners who commissioned it. The commissioners, however, at the end of July tasked the Indianapolis office of the Barnes & Thornburg law firm to explore tax exempt bonds and other municipal financing “to undertake a large confinement facility replacement plan.” 

Sheriff David Gladieux and his chief deputy, Troy Hershberger, a candidate for sheriff next year, support building a new jail away from downtown. So do Mitchell McKinney and Kevin Hunter, Fort Wayne police captains also running for sheriff.

New jail construction is trending toward one- or two-story pod systems that require fewer confinement officers, eliminate the need for elevators and stop inmate communication through pipes, Gladieux and jail experts said.

The Allen County Jail, originally built in 1981, is nearly always overcrowded and the subject of a federal lawsuit filed more than a year ago for inhumane conditions. 

Surrounded by a bustle of new development, the jail sits close to the St. Marys River in downtown Fort Wayne, with developers inquiring about the future availability of the 3.32 acres the facility occupies at Clinton and Superior streets.

The options outlining building another facility indicate it could take between 50 to 70 acres, enough land for a criminal justice complex. 

Elevatus, an architectural firm with more than 80 jails in its dossier, estimated 1,500 beds will be needed in 10 years, based on the county's population growth. That projection also depends on incarceration trends. For instance, in 2015, Indiana jails were required to house Level 6 felony offenders, causing inmate populations to swell. The Allen County Jail on Wednesday housed 140 of those inmates and that population category usually fluctuates between 125 and 150, officials said.

“I'm at 900 inmates,” Gladieux said, “so really 1,500 is kind of a small number.” Because of COVID-19 quarantine measures last year, the average daily inmate population was 792. Between 2016 and 2019, the average daily inmate population was between 835 and 925 inmates, the study said.

Other needs are addressed, including a psychiatric/medical ward that Gladieux said is essential. 

“We've got mentally ill in our jail because nobody knows what to do with them. There's a difference between severely mentally ill and people in need of mental health services,” Gladieux said. “Give me a separate building there. It needs to be manned by professional health people. My jailers are not equipped to handle that.” 

Location is also a concern. Gladieux, Hershberger, McKinney and Hunter view the jail's current spot as incompatible with nearby development.

“Anybody who lives in Fort Wayne realizes that jail has been talked about being moved since Headwaters Park (initially built in 1995),” said McKinney, a Republican. “You don't build a park and Superior Lofts and Promenade Park around a jail to make a jail pretty, so what's the end goal?” 

Hershberger, a Republican who joined the department in 1989 when the jail population was about 225 inmates, would like to see a new jail. 

“I think we all do. I'll take it anywhere we can put it,” Hershberger said, pointing out that the original jail tower is 40 years old. “We will have to renovate to modernize it. In today's technology world, it wasn't built for that. If we can collaboratively come to the agreement to get a new one built, that's the way to go. 

“The commissioners have to say where it goes; the (County Council) pulls the purse strings.”  

Hunter, whose focus is a chemical addictions program at the jail, suggests the facility should be built in an industrial area, away from residential areas. 

“It doesn't make sense we would add (to the existing jail),” said Hunter, a Democrat. “That is prime real estate there. Tearing it down and putting some other development there would make sense.” 

According to the Allen County assessor, the jail's land is worth $1.45 million and about $5.5 million with improvements, which means the actual 234,000-square-foot jail structure itself. The sheriff's headquarters occupies 2,800 square feet in the Allen County Courthouse, the study noted. 

What the jail property is worth on the market is another question. Steve Zacher, managing broker at The Zacher Co., a local commercial real estate firm, said he wasn't personally aware of developers inquiring about the property, but agreed “it's likely that it's happened. It doesn't fit the neighborhood.” 

John Perlich, Mayor Tom Henry's spokesman, said the mayor “has had people approach him from time to time to see if there could be a better use for that property. 

“I believe there have been some informal discussions in the past, but nothing recent to my knowledge,” Perlich added. 

Gladieux said the trend is away from downtown, urban-style jails toward one- or two-tier pod systems that limit construction to one story with a mezzanine. That requires fewer confinement officers and limits trafficking and threats delivered through building toilets and plumbing, Gladieux said. 

“I don't want elevators. That's how your trafficking happens and communications happen between blocks, talking through the toilets,” Gladieux said, adding that inmates will flood toilets, too, with potential havoc to lower floors. 

Of the two diagrams provided in the study, Gladieux favors the larger campus. At 60-70 acres, the diagram includes a mental health and medical wing, an intake and release building, a future courts tower, two buildings for community corrections and a two-story juvenile center, besides parking.

Allen County Commissioner Nelson Peters hinted a brand-new complex would cost more than jail renovations but said it is too early to estimate costs. 

Former Sheriff Ken Fries, now a county councilman, was less reluctant to discuss cost.

“I've said from the start we need to build a whole criminal justice complex and do it right the first time. I'm so tired of county government piecemealing. They wind up spending more taxpayer money than if they'd just do it right the first time,” Fries said.

A new jail would likely cost $150 million, Fries said, but estimates of adding on to the jail are low.

“In 10 years, they're going to have to do something else. You don't want a federal judge telling you to build a new jail,” said Fries, who thinks the entire criminal justice complex could cost about $400 million, but it doesn't have to be built all at one time.  

Three suggested areas to build are the 200-acre county-owned sheriff's training grounds at Adams Center and Paulding roads, the vacant former BAE facility on Taylor Street and somewhere near the airport. 

The report also suggests a timeline with public hearings in the middle of next year, construction starting in 2024 and finishing in the fall of 2026.  

The lawsuit filed that complains of inhumane jail conditions has not been decided. It was originally filed in January 2020 in U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne by Vincent Morris and the ACLU against the Allen County sheriff and county commissioners.

The latest legal move in the lawsuit called for a summary judgment in August. It seeks to have a judge declare that conditions at the Allen County Jail violate the constitutional requirements imposed by the Eighth and 14th amendments.

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