ANDERSON — If he could wave a magic wand and lower the number of detainees at the Madison County Jail to its rated capacity of 207 prisoners now, Sheriff Scott Mellinger believes the facility could last another 10 to 15 years.
But Mellinger inhabits the real world, and he knows a day of reckoning is coming.
And it's going to arrive sooner than most people realize.
All county jails are inspected annually by the Indiana Department of Correction to ensure that state jail standards are being met. The jail flunked its inspection on March 29, as well as a follow-up inspection Sept. 25.
"The Madison County Jail and the Madison County Commissioners are still noncompliant with the Indiana Jail Standards," per state laws, the DOC said in letter dated Sept. 27. "Additionally, the commissioners have failed to maintain and provide a jail to the sheriff that meets the Indiana Jail Standards."
That letter started a clock.
"From the date of this letter, the Madison County Commissioners will have 180 days to develop a plan of action to become compliant with the Indiana Jail Standards," the letter stated. "This would include alternatives to incarceration, reducing the inmate population, increasing bed space, or a plan to build a new jail or expand the present facility."
The most critical issue at the jail, Mellinger said in an interview on Thursday, is that the jail is being operated at about 40 percent over capacity. So far this year, the average daily population stands at 289 prisoners.
"We're trying to run a jail with 280, and 80 of those people don't have beds," he said, adding that another 30 prisoners are being held at jails in other counties.
Moreover, "we're doing it with the same number of staff when we were at capacity," Mellinger said.
That is one of the most critical problems state inspectors identified.
"The jail is understaffed," the state's letter said in bold type, "and has not met the requirements of the data-driven staffing analysis. Moreover, since the jail has reached its rated capacity on several previous occasions, the additional staffing is required just to ensure the safety and security of the facility and meet the inmate needs."
Because of pressure caused by overcrowding, the physical structure is breaking down, Mellinger said.
"We are pouring money into this facility," which was built in 1984, the sheriff said.
In 2016, the jail's heating and air conditioning system was replaced and a new roof was installed.
This year, the county spent $200,000 to replace the jail's video surveillance and intercom system. The plumbing system is so poorly designed and dilapidated, the county spent $150,000 on repairs, "and those breakdowns will continue," Mellinger said.
At a cost of more than $100,000, Mellinger plans on installing a full body scanner early next year to cut down on the amount of illegal drugs and other contraband coming into the facility.
Just as the physical structure of the jail is under stress from overcrowding, so is the staff.
"Mistakes are being made because of the overwhelming number of prisoners," Mellinger said. "And we're losing employees frequently because of the stress. Our turnover rate is as high as I've ever seen it."
Which makes the staff and jail more vulnerable to an incident because of the higher rate of training, he added.
Over the past year, discussions have begun among county leaders about the need for building a new jail. But the estimated price, about $40 million in today's dollars, seems far out of reach given Madison County's financial challenges.
Mellinger, however, doesn't believe the county has to spend all that money at one time. Current practice is to build new jails in what are referred to as "pods."
Constructed in this way, Madison County could expand its jail capacity to solve the current critical need for more space, and add additional pods later as necessary.
"I would be tickled if we could build a 100-bed addition that's primitive, but secure, and meets jail standards," to relieve overcrowding, Mellinger said.
He estimates a 100-bed pod could be built for $10 million. Such a facility could be used to house women.
The only downside he foresees is that the human resource costs of building such a facility would be higher, "but I believe it would get us out of this critical situation."
County Commissioner John Richwine said he agrees with that idea in principle, but thinks a more cost-effective approach would be to construct a pod capable of holding at least 250 prisoners.
He also thinks the county should look at every other possible alternative to reduce the number of prisoners currently incarcerated.
"Some things need to change before we can feel good about about the decision to build a new jail," Richwine said.
Revamping the current bond system is one avenue to consider, and there currently is a pilot program underway in 10 Indiana counties to do just that.
"I'm going to be working all winter to come up with some solutions to getting these numbers down," Richwine said.