A total of 25 prisoners have been transferred to “Jail II,” the name given to the newly refurbished space at the Hancock County Community Corrections Center. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)
A total of 25 prisoners have been transferred to “Jail II,” the name given to the newly refurbished space at the Hancock County Community Corrections Center. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)
HANCOCK COUNTY — A law enforcement officer recently pulled over a man for a traffic violation in Greenfield. He soon discovered the man had several outstanding warrants for crimes committed in Hancock County.

While the officer wanted to arrest him on the spot and process him into the county jail, he couldn’t. The suspect was instead taken to Cumberland, where the Cumberland Police Department took him into custody, then booked him into the Marion County Jail for outstanding warrants in that county.

Due to state COVID-19 restrictions being strictly enforced, bookings at the county jail are far lower than the number of offenses. For over a year, Sheriff Brad Burkhart has been forced to ask law enforcement agencies to issue summonses in many cases rather than process suspects into jail.

County intake numbers are expected to remain lower than normal despite the official opening of a satellite jail in the former Hancock County Community Corrections facility, which has been refurbished and transformed into a smaller holding facility called Jail II.

No one is more frustrated than Burkhart with the inability to book every lawbreaker into the jail. But, he said, it’s important to continuing following pandemic protocols that have so far proved successful. During normal times, the jail can hold 157 people, but the state recommends operating at 80% capacity, or around 126 inmates. Pre-pandemic, the jail regularly had a population well over 200.

A total of 128 inmates were in jail on Monday, April 5.

“It’s one thing to run a jail and another to run a jail during COVID,” Burkhart said.

Unless offenders are committing person-on-person crimes or driving while intoxicated, they’re more than likely not going to be booked into the jail.

Burkhart sent a letter to law enforcement agencies last week telling officials that even with Jail II officially open, they must continue to take the proper steps to open up slowly, keeping arrests lower than normal.

The practice of not arresting suspects, while safeguarding staff and inmates at the jail against the spread of COVID-19, may be the right decision. But it has been frustrating for some local law enforcement officers who say they want to get criminals off the streets.

“It has been very disheartening for our officers to release people with open warrants and illegal drugs,” Capt. Chuck McMichael of the Greenfield Police Department said in an email to the Daily Reporter. “We have had situations where we have been dealing with some very bad people that need to be in jail, but our hands have been tied.”

Officials with the GPD say they’ve received calls daily asking for help in situations but are not able to provide a “normal” service, due to the jail’s protocols. That includes families of drug users who have open warrants where the caller wants the person arrested before they overdose and die. One such family contacted the Daily Reporter, begging that police arrest their loved one before he harmed himself.

“Unfortunately, in these situations, we are forced to be reactive,” McMichael said.

Burkhart noted his department has worked with families in such situations and has found safe havens for people at risk. He’s also told all agencies if there is someone they truly feel should be in jail, they need to make jail officials aware.

In late March, officers finished transferring the last of 25 inmates from the main jail to the newly refurbished Jail II. They started the transfer process in early March and feel comfortable with the number of inmates in the facility, which could house up to 100 inmates.

Jail commander Bridget Foy said they have 11 women and 14 men now in Jail II. They might bring in as many as 15 more. Foy said just because they have more room, it doesn’t mean they’ll be taking in significant numbers due to COVID restrictions.

“We are working it in baby steps,” Foy said. “It’s all been a big juggling act.”

Part of that juggling act is keeping the community safe while heeding state regulations for jails. Foy, a former detective with the sheriff’s department, said she understands officers’ frustration, but she said jail staff and inmates must be kept safe as well so an outbreak doesn’t occur.

Hancock County is among the state leaders when it comes to keeping COVID-19 out of the jail population. Other than a couple of officers catching the virus when the pandemic started, they’ve remained relatively COVID-free with no major spread.

“We’ve got something to celebrate,” Foy said. “It’s not all been bad. We’ve protected staff and inmates as much as we could.”

Foy noted the jail is not alone in how it’s dealing with COVID-19. She cited a study from Indiana University on the effect of COVID-19 on jail populations, which identified 19 Indiana counties that showed a decrease of more than 30% of their jail populations during the pandemic.

Sheriffs departments described several common changes in jail operations during the pandemic, including the creation of quarantine areas; adoption of enhanced cleaning procedures; integration of health screenings; use of personal protective equipment; COVID-19 testing; changes in staff shifts; and modifications to court-related proceedings.

The study noted the county jail had a total of 293 inmates in February 2020. That number was down to only 111 in June 2020.

As for the opening of Jail II, all inmates there are COVID-free and will be able to take part in every program available at the main jail. Foy said that was part of the transition process to be able to start in-person programming again. That includes allowing counselors running programs to have face-to-face contact with inmates, but that will only happen for inmates in Jail II and not the main jail, where restrictions are tighter for now.

“Over there we have a great set-up,” Foy said of Jail II.

Foy screened every inmate transferred to Jail II, making sure they are low-risk prisoners who will adhere to rules and regulations. None of the inmates in Jail II has been charged with person-on-person crimes.

Meanwhile, law enforcement officials said they’ve tried to be patient in understanding the health and safety concerns of jail staff and inmates, but they want county law enforcement to get back to the business of holding perpetrators accountable, particularly drug dealers.

“Some of these people have admitted to dealing the same drugs they possess during the interaction, and we have been forced to issue a summons, file for warrants and let them go,” McMichael said.

Paul Casey, McCordsville’s chief of police, understands officers’ frustrations. However, Casey said, he respects what Burkhart is doing at the jail with the strict state COVID protocol, which includes a quarantine period for all inmates when they’re booked.

“I can’t imagine managing a jail population where 25 or 50 percent of the inmates might get sick,” Casey said. “The sheriff has to make decisions that protect the department and the county from unnecessary lawsuits.”

Still, the frustration is difficult.

McMichael said police a few weeks ago worked with Henry County officials to apprehend a suspected car thief. After catching up with a man who allegedly stole a vehicle from a local gas station, officers were unable to take the person to jail.

“The event was witnessed by the victim and security cameras, but the jail’s protocols did not allow us to bring him in,” McMichael said. “We had to issue him a summons to appear in court or file for a warrant.”

That is taking a toll on officers who are trying to do their jobs.

Casey agreed, but he added that officials in Marion County have been issuing summonses for years and that protocol might be something local officials have to get used to.

“It’s just a tough deal,” Casey said. “But, the long term health of the department is important.”
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