Indianapolis Star

Report: Jail Tunnel Not Safe

February 7, 2005
System of transferring inmates to the court lacks adequate security, space, adviser says.

By Tom Spalding
Indianapolis Star

Though conditions at the long-crowded Marion County Jail show improvement, a new report focuses on the 43-year-old City-County Building -- specifically on the safety of deputies who escort prisoners there through a cramped tunnel.

The consultant's report, filed as part of an analysis sent to U.S. District Court, puts on paper what officials have voiced for years.

"The facility is very, very frustrating," said the consultant, Rod Miller, of a Gettysburg, Pa., nonprofit, Community Resource Services Inc. Miller said he inspected the system in October.

About 60 sheriff's deputies are assigned to the "court line," overseeing 61,000 prisoner moves a year.

Miller's report says they face a risk of harm because of cramped holding areas for City-County Building courtrooms as well as the quarter-mile-long tunnel from the jail -- a passageway under East Washington Street that's full of blind spots and subject to occasional radio signal blackouts that could leave a guard unable to summon help.

"It's dangerous," said Mark Renner, the administrator for Marion Superior Courts. "It's rife for a tragedy to take place."

Both court and law enforcement officials say they could use the findings as a catalyst in the same way they resolved problems at the Marion County Jail.

The analysis also outlines improvements made by Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson to remain under a 1,135-population cap at the jail. It notes that inmates' food, medical care and bathroom conditions have improved.

U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker has demanded improvements as part of a 30-year-old lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department.

Ken Falk, legal director for the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, represents the inmates as part of the lawsuit by the ICLU. He said the jail continues to operate close to its cap, suggesting possible emergency inmate releases in the future.

"We're still in a risky area," Falk said, "but the sheriff has done a marvelous job in many areas of the jail."

Indiana Department of Correction inspector Paul E. Downing was critical of the jail in a 2003 analysis but was impressed during a recent inspection.

"There are still things that need correcting, but tremendous improvement," Downing said. "The jail is much calmer, much quieter and, overall, much cleaner in its physical appearance."

Kevin Murray, the sheriff's legal counsel, said "jail crowding got the headlines" but all along "those people in city government in the know have been just as concerned, if not more concerned, about the court-line side of things."

Usually before morning and afternoon criminal court sessions, one sheriff's deputy may lead up to 15 prisoners -- all handcuffed and joined in chain-gang style -- from the jail through an 8-foot-high-by-6-foot-wide tunnel leading to the subbasement of the City-County Building.

Once there, prisoners are taken to courtrooms on several floors on one of four elevators. In some instances, prisoners are moved to the sixth floor in a freight elevator, then into the east wing. Building office workers also use this elevator.

Among the problems outlined in Miller's report:

• The path navigated between the jail and the courthouse by court officers with inmates is not fully secure and has numerous blind spots.

• Overall courthouse and courtroom security is inadequate -- in the words of one court official, he wrote, the entire building is "porous."

• Inmate holding areas in the courthouse are seriously substandard and frequently overcrowded.

• There are areas in the courthouse, jail and the connecting tunnels that cause radio "dead zones."

Miller said the escort deputies, who earn about $25,000 annually, had a turnover rate of about 60 percent last year, a rate so high it created continuity problems among the remaining deputies. He said those deputies need more direction, training and backup in case of an emergency.

Sheriff's Maj. Scott Robinett, whose duties include overseeing the court line, agreed.

"With the magnitude and the number of courts in session," he said, "and with the number of prisoners taken before the courts every day, day in and day out, they do a remarkable job."