Indianapolis Star

Officials to Face Judge on Jail Staff Shortage

December 3, 2003
By Vic Ryckaert

Marion County officials will appear in federal court to explain why they have failed to address the "absurdly low" staffing levels at the local jail.

In the latest development in a 30-year-old lawsuit over jail crowding, U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker scheduled a Dec. 30 conference to discuss the staffing shortage with lawyers for Sheriff Frank Anderson and others.

Anderson has already been found in contempt of a court order to maintain humane conditions in the Marion County Jail. Now the Indiana Civil Liberties Union is asking the judge to hold the City-County Council in contempt, a move that could force officials to hire 62 new officers.

"I'm hoping that everybody recognizes that this is something that needs to be done," ICLU attorney Ken Falk said.

Two studies released in August called staffing levels at the local jail "absurdly low" and said the county needs 62 more correctional officers to ensure safe and humane conditions for inmates and guards.

The jail has a staff of about 220 correctional officers, who earn a starting salary of about $25,000 a year. Anderson asked for 62 new guards during an August budget hearing; the council gave him 20 officers this year and 20 more next year.

That's not enough, Falk said: "The jail is still dangerously understaffed."

City-County Councilman Steve Talley called the jail "a tragedy waiting to happen" and said he supports the hiring of all 62 officers.

"We should hire those guards," he said. "Not only does it put those prisoners at risk; it puts the guards at risk. It's unfortunate that the ICLU has to ask the courts to force us to do that."

Jail crowding has been a problem for three decades, said Cale Bradford, presiding judge of Marion Superior Court. The county, he said, has made great strides in recent months to improve the conditions.

"I'm confident Judge Barker will recognize the efforts that have been made," Bradford said. "I think she understands that government funding has to be planned for and that we are certainly not in a crisis situation anymore."

Design problems and staffing shortages prompted some experts to call the Marion County Jail the state's most dangerous facility.

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

In July, Kevin Carpenter died after he was beaten by another inmate in the Marion County Lockup. Guards saw the attack on a video screen but could not arrive in time. Larry T. Thomas was charged with Carpenter's slaying.

While staffing concerns remain, officials say November was a good month in terms of jail crowding. Bradford said judges made a concerted effort to find other places for inmates besides jail.

"I thought we came through the Thanksgiving weekend in splendid shape," Bradford said. "We are doing a better job of managing our jail space now than we ever have."

In November, the jail population averaged 1,178; the population cap was 1,260. On Monday, the limit was reduced to 1,235.

The jail has been operating under a population cap since July, when Barker slapped the county sheriff with a contempt order for failing to maintain safe and humane conditions for inmates.

The cap will continue to drop each month under Barker's order until it reaches a final ceiling of 1,135 inmates April 1.