With crowded spaces becoming more of an issue each day for some southern Indiana jails, law enforcement officials are struggling to find answers that would alleviate the problem any time soon.
The Lawrence and Orange county jails are two such jails dealing with crowding issues. In Lawrence County, the average daily jail population was 114 in 2012, and the average was as low as 102 in 2016. But this year, that number has skyrocketed to 178 people. The average stay is nearly 32 days for each inmate.
“The main problem is flexibility,” said Lawrence County Sheriff Mike Branham. “We are running right at our limit. ... There are days we have 185 inmates but only have 180 beds. Then they have to sleep on plastic bunks, so no one is sleeping on the floor. When you start cramming extra people in, you’re creating more problems for them and our staff.”
When the jail was designed and built, it was supposed to be an 88-bed facility with single bunks. However, it was eventually double-bunked, bringing the number of inmates it can house up to 168. In 2015 and 2016, 12 more bunks were added to make 180.
“That’s just bed space,” Branham said. “... Every other aspect of the jail, it was designed for an 88-bed facility, and we are operating about 100 over that almost all the time.
“It’s to the point where we’ve got to decide how much longer this will be sustainable.”
In Orange County, Sheriff Josh Babcock said, at one point recently, the jail had about 142 inmates — the most the jail has ever seen. Right now, he said, there are 101 inmates. There are 92 beds, but he said the state ruled the jail’s capacity to be 74 inmates.
Some inmates are sent to Crawford County to be housed, Babcock said.
“Space is an issue,” he said. “And there’s more medical and food costs with the more people you house. ... We are also operating an older facility. We opened in 1984, and there’s not been any major renovations since then.”
Babcock and Branham both said inmate classification is also an issue. It’s harder to have live-in spaces that house only people who have been charged with or convicted of similar crimes.
“If you have lower-level, nonviolent, nonthreatening inmates, you can’t put those in with high-risk inmates,” Branham said.
The causes of overcrowding are many and make the issue much more complex, Branham said. One reason is the local housing of Level 6 felons, and Branham said the jail houses about 15 of those on average.
But there’s also the drug epidemic plaguing not just Indiana, but the nation. A lot of the Orange County jail’s crowding has to do with the number of methamphetamine-related arrests, according to Babcock.
Branham agreed the drug problem is a major factor, as well.
“I talk to sheriffs and police chiefs in every state, and we are dealing with the same things and have the same issues,” he said. “We are dealing with people with serious addictions. ... And I would attribute the increased number of arrests to a couple different things. One reason is all of our (local police) departments experienced turnover. We are getting younger officers who are more proactive, and I think you’re seeing a more proactive approach to policing.”
“There’s not a magic bullet or a single issue that drives any of this. It’s super complex.”
Babcock said he doesn’t know of a single answer that will fix the problem, and Branham said there was “nothing on the horizon” that would make him feel like it would change for the better. However, he did say taking a different approach to addressing mental illnesses is worth an effort.
“We have folks coming into our jails with mental illnesses ... and we are just not equipped to handle people with mental illnesses,” he said. Having more treatment available, such as being able to send inmates to regional medical facilities for mental health treatment, might help take stress off jails.
He also said if a jail is operating at 90 percent, the jail should have a choice as to whether it wants to house Level 6 felons.
“I talked to the jail inspector at a meeting and he made a comment that probably 40 counties in Indiana are in a position where they’ll have to add on or build new jails in the next few years due to crowding problems,” he said.