History symposium highlights Marion Co. jail overcrowding court case, changes

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The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana hosted its annual Court History Symposium on Friday, with two panels looking at a famous Marion County Jail overcrowding court case that took 35 years to resolve.

The case – Marion County Jail Inmates v. Sheriff Frank Anderson — first began in 1972 with the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, now known as the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, filing a lawsuit about the jail’s overcrowding less than a decade after it opened in 1965.

The symposium’s first panel included ACLU of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk, Marion County Sheriff Kerry Forestal, Frost Brown Todd partner Kevin Murray and Indiana Southern District Court Senior Judge Sarah Evans Barker as the moderator.

Falk joined the jail overcrowding case in the 1990s and spent 11 years litigating in court.

“I’ve done many, many of these cases, and doing so now is that generally by the time you file the case, the sheriff quickly becomes your best friend because the sheriff knows there’s a problem,” Falk said. “Everyone knows, but there’s a failure of will to solve the problem. And that failure will be not the sheriff because the sheriff cannot let people out the back door.”

Falk said that the Marion County Jail was rated the worst jail in the state and was one of the 10 most overcrowded jails in the country.

For some time, the capacity limit went down and then gradually rose up again.

The case sat with little movement for years, until Barker took over the case when she became judge.

At one point, Barker decided to invite several of the people involved with the jail to tour the jail together. Although they did not know what they were doing when they arrived, Barker said she wanted to see the jail as it was.

“The surprise element was important,” Barker said. “I didn’t want them to change what they were doing.”

Forestal worked at the jail at the time, and he said it was certainly surprising.

Barker said she could still remember what she saw that day.

She described the facility as really crowded, dark, smelly and noisy. There was laundry hanging around, and inmates received sack lunches of white bread, a cheese slice, bologna and packets of mustard.

Falk had told Barker on the tour that the condition of the jail wasn’t as bad as it used to be.

“When I found (Frank Anderson) in contempt, it became a vehicle for getting somebody to do something about this, because Frank was stuck just like all the sheriffs had been stuck,” Barker said of the former Marion County sheriff.

Murray said Anderson was committed to bringing people together to solve the problem.

“The commitment that the sheriff made then was to bring people together to figure out the problem. And the problem he quickly came up with, it’s the funnel — the funnel gets narrower and at the neck was the criminal justice system in Marion County. And it wasn’t a sheriff’s problem. It was a criminal justice processing problem,” Murray said.

Murray added that they started working on the issue and called themselves the Thursday Afternoon Group.

Through a lot of work, the case was resolved in 2007 once Barker found the settlement to be reasonable and adequate.

Murray said he got a copy of the transcript of that final hearing and shows it to every new mayor and City-County Council member so they are aware of the history and don’t repeat it.

The Thursday Afternoon Group still meets every week to collaborate on solutions to issues in the city.

The symposium’s second panel included Court of Appeals of Indiana Judge Cale Bradford, Marion County Chief Public Defender Robert Hill, Col. James Martin and Indiana Southern District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson as the moderator.

That panel spoke about their experiences with the case, the current state of the jail and the issues it faces now.

At the time of the case, Bradford was a Marion County judge.

He said at the time, he felt it wasn’t his problem. That was until Barker made him aware that it was his problem, too.

“I’m looking down the double barrel of a federal judge’s shotgun,” Bradford recalled. “And she says, ‘You know when you took an oath, when you were sworn in to be a judge’ — and I knew she remembered because she swore me in to be a judge and as an assistant United States attorney — she said, ‘You took an oath to enforce the Constitution and protect the Constitution. Part of that constitution is the Eighth Amendment.'”

He described it as a gong going off, realizing he needed to do something and feeling a renewed sense of responsibility.

So, Bradford and the Thursday Afternoon Group, which included Magnus-Stinson, came up with a long list of requests for the City-County Council to address. That included how long people were spending in jail, ballistics processing and the length of a case.

Hill said ballistics is something they still struggle with, along with having enough attorneys to litigate cases and get them moving.

Martin was part of the clean-up crew of the jail.

He said part of the issue that Anderson was facing had to do with the culture and how people didn’t want to change because that’s just how it had always been at the jail.

“I’ve seen it evolve, as they were up against one heck of a cultural battle of where you always done it,” Martin recalled. “If there was a pile of oatmeal on the floor, it laid there until it got green.”

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