ACLU files Wabash County Jail overcrowding suit

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

Raising allegations of unconstitutional conditions, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana has filed a lawsuit against Wabash County for “chronic” jail overcrowding.

The case of Copeland, et al. v. Wabash County, Indiana and the Wabash County Sheriff, in his official capacity, 3:20-cv-154, was filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana in South Bend. The suit alleges violations of the Eighth and 14th Amendments and seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.

“Overcrowding inherently leads to conditions that the Supreme Court has found unconstitutional,” Stevie Pactor, an ACLU of Indiana lawyer representing the inmate-plaintiffs, said in a statement. “County sheriffs must ensure the safety and well-being of individuals who are incarcerated.”

The plaintiffs are seeking class certification, led by inmates Jerry Copeland, John Whitt and James Dutton. The proposed class definition is “all persons currently confined, or who will in the future be confined, in the Wabash County Jail.”

In its complaint, the ACLU says the Wabash County Jail holds 72 permanent beds but housed 108 inmates at the time of the Department of Correction’s last inspection in February 2019. The additional inmates sleep in either the day rooms, the indoor recreation room or the library on either mats or plastic “boats.”

Housing inmates in the day rooms or rec room creates tension by limiting space and recreational opportunities, the complaint says. The jail does not have an outdoor recreation area.

Additionally, there is no access to water or a toilet in the library, according to the complaint. Inmates who sleep in the library “are told to attract the attention of guards,” who “often do not respond quickly.”

The complaint also alleges a lack of adequate staff to monitor prisoners. Further, because of insufficient space, prisoners often are not classified appropriately, the ACLU argues, giving the example of inmates with disabilities needing to be housed separately.

“Assaults between prisoners are frequent, aggravated by the overcrowded conditions,” the ACLU wrote in the complaint. “… The lack of meaningful recreation, the overcrowding, and the lack of staff supervision cause continuous tension and dangerous conditions at the jail.”

Copeland has been incarcerated in Wabash County since July 2019 and currently sleeps in one of six beds in a day room. Whitt was once transferred to the Miami County Jail due to overcrowding, and when he returned to Wabash County, he was housed in the day room.

Copeland and Whitt are both pretrial detainees.

Like Whitt, Dutton was temporarily transferred to Miami County before returning to the Wabash County Jail, where he was initially housed in the rec room and the day room. He now has a bed in a cell.

Dutton is a post-conviction prisoner. Online court records show he is serving a four-year sentence for a 2020 drug conviction.

The three inmates have “seen prisoners fighting because of the tensions on the block” and have “only occasionally been offered recreation opportunities,” the complaint alleges. They also describe seeing “inmates with mental health conditions being preyed upon by other inmates, because of the lack of effective classification in the jail.” The plaintiffs each have filed jail grievances, according to the complaint.

The ACLU notes that the Wabash County Commissioners have discussed the issue of jail overcrowding in public meetings. The complaint says the commissioners have a duty under Indiana Code § 36-2-2-24(a) to keep the jail in good repair, while I.C. 36-2-13-5(a)(7) gives the sheriff a duty to take care of the jail and its prisoners.

Wabash County Sheriff Ryan Baker did not respond to an Indiana Lawyer request for comment about conditions at the jail. Brian Haupert, chair of the Wabash County Commissioners, declined to comment.

“The named plaintiffs are concerned not only for their own safety, but for the health and safety of other prisoners who are similarly injured by the conditions in the jail,” the complaint says.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction requiring the county “to take all steps necessary to ensure that the conditions of confinement at the Wabash County Jail comply with the United States Constitution.” They are also asking for a declaration of unconstitutionality, as well as fees and costs.

The ACLU says it has filed more than a dozen suits related to Indiana jail overcrowding, including ongoing litigation in Allen, Gibson, Henry, Marshall, Vigo and Wabash counties, as well as a case open for monitoring in Monroe County. The organization has created an “ACLU Smart Justice Blueprint” as a plan for reducing overall Hoosier incarceration by half.

“The pattern of county jail overcrowding in Indiana highlights the need for larger mass incarceration policy reform,” ACLU of Indiana executive director Jane Henegar said in a statement. “It’s time to move beyond treating just the symptoms of jail overcrowding, to treating the cause — the policies that have led to this mass incarceration crisis.”

Jail overcrowding has been a hot topic in Hoosier government going back to at least 2014, when the Legislature began working on criminal justice reform initiatives. One result of that reform is Criminal Rule 26, which mandated as of Jan. 1 that each of Indiana’s 92 counties develop pretrial release protocols to keep low-level offenders out of jail prior to trial.

But local officials have said crowding in local jails has increased since the adoption of criminal code reform in House Enrolled Act 1006 in 2015, which tended to shift the housing of low-level felons from the Department of Correction to local jails.

The case against the Wabash County Jail has been assigned to Northern District Judge Jon E. DeGuilio.

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