A central Indiana county that has faced lawsuits and criticism for how it houses its inmates is being asked to consider building a new jail in a vacant school building.
Delaware County Commissioner James King has proposed turning the former Wilson Middle School in Muncie into a jail that could house 500 inmates or more and eliminate the need for the county to pay to house local inmates elsewhere because of a lack of space.
King estimates the plan could cost $10 million. But it would require extensive buy-in in a community that's leery of any jail plan after a rocky history with the current facility.
"I know people don't like to talk about it, but we're going to have to have a new jail," King told The Star Press. "I know they think anybody who tries this will never get re-elected, but if that's what happens, so be it."
The county's jail operations have been a point of contention since the 1970s, when inmates filed a lawsuit over jail conditions. A decade later, officials agreed to build a new jail, and the Delaware County Justice Center opened in 1992.
The new facility was deemed too small and poorly designed from the day it opened. At some points, 300 inmates have been housed inside a jail that was built for 120 and later reconfigured for 220.
The final payment on the old jail was made in 2014. But the jail doesn't have room to expand to house more inmates, and it lacks an outdoor recreation area.
King thinks Wilson Middle School could be a solution. The 219,000-square-foot building sits on 51 acres and has been vacant since June 2014, when it was merged into Southside Middle School.
King said the building has enough room to house cells and county offices and could even serve as a site for a county animal shelter.
The building also has relatively few neighbors, which could limit objections to the site.
"We're looking at $10 million to redo the whole building and have it done," King said. "But if we built something like this, it could cost us $30 million or $40 million."
He will need support from fellow commissioners, Sheriff Mike Scroggins and the Delaware County Council. Both Scroggins and former Commissioner Larry Bledsoe said in 2014 that they supported putting in place a process that would eventually lead to a new jail, but they didn't specify a timeline.
King said the time is right because Wilson hasn't suffered from the deterioration that occurs in buildings that have been without daily use and maintenance.
"This is like a dream I want to do, but I don't know if I can get it done," he said.