Indianapolis Star Article

Studies: Jail short on guards

August 12, 2003
The number of guards at the Marion County Jail is "absurdly low," and, in some ways, the inmates are running the facility, according to two reports on inmate crowding filed Monday in federal court.

Both studies, commissioned by Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson, maintain that the shortage of guards at the jail increases the potential for violence, creating a crisis that can't be ignored. Both also faulted the design of the jail, which restricts guards' view of inmates.

"Staffing levels can only be described as absurdly low," the National Institute of Corrections study reported.

During one visit, reviewers Robert Aguirre and Larry Bacon found just 10 officers on duty; six were in the control rooms operating doors and elevators and one was in training, leaving three officers available to directly manage more than 1,000 inmates.

The jail, with a staff of about 220, is short 62.3 correctional officers, according to the second report, submitted by Rod Miller, co-author of the National Institute for Corrections' Staffing Analysis Workbook for Jails.

"The basic practice of conducting hourly inmates visual checks was abandoned many years ago," Miller's report states. "Staff do not enter the housing units unless they are accompanied by several officers; inmates are in de facto control of the housing units."

The root of the problem is jail crowding, the subject of a decades-old federal lawsuit. A jail with beds for 1,300 prisoners has at times held nearly 1,700. A record 1,686 inmates filled the jail April 13.

Indianapolis has three major jail facilities: the main jail, the lockup and the privately run Marion County Jail II. The main jail is the largest.

Crowding and poor conditions have propelled Marion County's jail to national attention. The U.S. Department of Justice has ranked it the country's ninth most crowded facility.

This month the jail population has ranged from 1,156 to 1,258 inmates. On Monday, it held 1,226.

Guards have been spit on and attacked. Inmates have been killed.

In January, Correctional Officer Richard Cornell was stabbed in the chest by an inmate wielding a homemade knife. Cornell recovered from his injuries.

Inmate Kevin Carpenter, 44, spent six days in a coma and died July 7 after suffering a severe beating on July 1 in the Marion County Lockup. Guards saw the attack unfolding on a video screen but could not reach the cell in time. Carpenter's family is suing. Larry T. Thomas, the inmate accused of choking and beating Carpenter, has been charged with murder and aggravated battery.

Both reports note that the jail's design has added to the problems.

The old portion of the jail, built in 1965, consists of long rows of cells or barracks-style dorms with catwalks for officers to survey the inmates. The newer section, built in 1985, has officers in a control room overlooking inmate common areas and cells.

The combination leads to blind spots, an outdated intercom system and obsolete locks.

Indiana Civil Liberties Union attorney Ken Falk said the design flaws coupled with the shortage of guards allows stronger inmates to prey on the weaker ones.

"I'd call it a place where everybody has to be aware of their surroundings at all times," Deputy Chief David Pankoke said.

Despite the dangers, Pankoke, the jail commander, said things have improved dramatically for officers and inmates since last month when U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker set a 1,135-inmate cap on the jail, to be phased in by April. She will fine county taxpayers $40 a day for each inmate over the limit, beginning in September.

"I think it's probably safer now than it probably has been in the last several years," Pankoke said. "Things are better now. Every inmate has a bed. We're dealing with fewer inmates."

The Sheriff's Department will present the reports to the City-County Council and request money to hire more officers, Pankoke said.

The request comes when council members are considering cutting $2 million from various agencies -- including $300,000 from the Sheriff's Department's current $69.3 million budget.

Marion Superior Court Presiding Judge Cale Bradford said the county cannot trim funds for public safety.

"This court is not going to allow its budget to be decreased," Bradford said. "We won't stand for it, that's all there is to it."

In November 2000, Marion County judges filed a mandate ordering the council to pay $2.2 million in court-related expenses including hiring new probation officers and court staff.

"It's unfortunate that here again we're looking to have to increase budgets relating to the jail," Bradford said. "On the other hand, it's something we haven't done in years. We're paying the price to the piper for something that should have been done years ago."

By Vic Ryckaert
Indianapolis Star