Clay County officials sued over ‘lack of transparency’ regarding possible jail expansion

A not-for-profit practice representing a coalition of immigrant-rights groups has filed a lawsuit against Clay County officials, alleging the county’s commissioners, county council and sheriff’s office have all failed to provide transparency in developing plans for a possible expansion of the Clay County Justice Center, which houses U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees.

Mariposa Legal, a program of the 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization COMMON Foundation, filed the complaint on Dec. 15 on behalf of the newly formed Communities Not Cages Indiana Coalition, a coalition of advocacy groups in Indiana and Illinois “opposed to the expansion of incarceration of ICE detainees.”

The lawsuit alleges county officials have violated both the Indiana Open Door Law and the Indiana Access to Public Records Act and has requested the court void an agreement for services signed on Sept. 16 and enjoin county officials from proceeding with plans until “‘substantial reconsideration’ has been given at a public meeting complaint with the (ODL) under I.C. § 5-14-1.5.7(e).”

Plaintiffs claim all decisions regarding the possible $25 million-plus jail expansion have taken place in closed-door “special meetings” rather than the regular monthly public meeting.

Since 2013, Clay County Jail has maintained a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service to hold ICE detainees. The county is paid $55 per ICE detainee per day by the Department of Homeland Security in addition to $20 per hour and 57 cents per mile for guards/transportation. On average, the jail holds between 50 and 60 detainees per day, with the average stay for the detainees hovering around 21 days, according to ICE records.

The expansion would add at least 265 new beds to the existing jail, which currently houses up to 176.

Auditor Jennifer Flater said the Clay County Jail brought in $1.4 million in revenue in 2020 for housing the detainees. The budget for the jail overall was $1,958,925 that year, she said

On Nov. 1, Eric Somheil, legal counsel for Clay County, told Indiana Lawyer that the contract between the Clay County commissioners and Clay County Jail Partners LLC, which had been signed on Sept. 16, was null. According to the complaint, Somheil told the Coalition via email on Dec. 9 the memorandum of understanding with developers was reactivated sometime around Nov. 12, but it was not clear to what extent.

During a Dec. 6 public meeting, commissioners and Somheil responded to all questions from the public regarding the jail with “no comment,” according to the complaint.

On the issue of the Open Door Law, the lawsuit claims the National Immigrant Justice Center has submitted more than seven requests, which were answered late or incomplete. On Nov. 11, the NIJC and Mariposa Legal filed three formal complaints with the Indiana Public Access Counselor citing a lack of transparency on the part of county officials.

“The Commissioners’ pattern of taking all official action in ‘special meetings’ or during private meetings of the Clay County Jail Committee and in particular re-validating the BOT Agreement/MOU outside of a public meeting and then refusing to answer questions about that decision in the regular scheduled meeting immediately following, prevented the public from knowing the scope of this proposed expansion in terms of its cost, timeline and the process undertaken by county officials in bargaining with developers,” the complaint states.

“Additionally, these decisions and pattern of decision making have impaired the ability of concerned community members to obtain reliable information about the proposed expansion, disseminate it in the Clay County community, and turn out individuals to County Commissioner or County Council meetings,” it continues. “The fact that meeting minutes have not been posted on the Defendants’ websites and have not fully complied with the ODL has further impaired the public’s ability to obtain knowledge about this proposal.”

Indianapolis Attorney Hannah C. Cartwright, co-founder and executive director of Mariposa Legal, is listed on the docket as representing the plaintiffs.

In an email to Indiana Lawyer, Somheil declined to comment on the pending litigation.

The case, Mariposa Legal v. Clay County Commissioners, Clay County Council, Clay County Sheriffs’ Department, 11C01-2112-MI-000891, has been assigned to Judge Joseph D. Trout in Clay Circuit Court.

“The people of Indiana deserve to have transparency and accountability from their elected public officials,” Cartwright said in a statement.  “We hope that this lawsuit will bring such transparency around the proposed jail expansion of Clay County Jail that not only directly affects Clay County taxpayers but has significant regional and even national implications as this small county seeks to unilaterally collaborate with ICE in the detention of immigrant residents in the Midwest.”

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