Judge certifies class action in Henry County Jail overcrowding suit

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The Indiana Lawyer on 6/27/2019 by Dave Stafford

Current and former inmates at the Henry County Jail will proceed as a class in a federal lawsuit broadly alleging overcrowded, unconstitutional and inhumane conditions at the facility in New Castle.

Indiana Southern District Senior Judge Sarah Evans Barker on Tuesday granted a motion for class certification on behalf of more than 100 current inmates, as well as lead plaintiff Adam Bell, who no longer is detained in the jail but was housed there at the time the case was filed. Barker rejected Henry County’s argument that because Bell was no longer jailed, he lacked standing to properly represent the class.

“This argument is unavailing, however, because it is the uncertainty about the length of incarceration, not the maximum length of incarceration, that controls,” Barker wrote in her order certifying a class in Adam Bell v. Sheriff of Henry County, et al.1:19-cv-00557.

Among other allegations, Bell alleges the jail:

  • Was originally designed to house 76 prisoners, but over the years the county expanded jail space and added a third bunk to existing double bunk beds in many cells, expanding capacity to 116 beds. The suit claims these additional bunks never received required authorization from the Department of Correction’s chief jail inspector. In its response to the complaint, Henry County acknowledges the additions, but officials “deny that said jail inspection report is an accurate statement of the facts… .”
  • Is deemed overcrowded 100 percent of the time by the DOC’s chief jail inspector. Henry County likewise disputes the statements in the report and disputes that the facility is “overcrowded in terms of having more inmates than permanent beds… .”
  • Has made some inmates, including Bell, sleep on cellblock floors and near cell toilets due to overcrowding. Defendants deny that allegation.
  • Has housed inmates in offices and in an indoor recreation area due to overcrowding, despite these areas having no toilets or showers. Henry County denies this in its response.
  • Is chronically understaffed, unable to adequately monitor prisoners, cellblock inspections do not occur, and that as a result of tensions due to these conditions, “assaults between prisoners are frequent, aggravated by the overcrowded conditions.”

Bell states in his complaint that he was housed for about four weeks in the jail’s E-Block on a triple bunk cell for an alleged violation of home detention rules after a criminal conviction. At the time he filed the complaint, he alleged there were four people in the cell and, “For the first two weeks he was the fourth person in the cell and was on the floor on just a mattress. … The cell block is extremely dirty.”

Henry County denies these claims, as well as Bell’s allegation that the cellblock at the time his suit was filed was locked down overnight; that overcrowding in the unit made exercising impossible; and, that overcrowding and lack of recreation and supervision “causes continuous tension and dangerous conditions in the block.”

Bell also alleges, and the county denies, that he and other prisoners were denied grievance forms by jail staff and also that they were told grievances would only be processed if they were filed on jail grievance forms.

The complaint also cites the report of a consultant hired by the county to look into conditions at the jail, which concluded that overcrowding “does not permit the jail to safely house inmates or provide for certain needs. … The current physical plant does not lend itself to the separations required to safely house inmates.” Henry County admits that language is included in the report it paid for, but replied in March that officials “deny that the language … accurately describes the current conditions” in the jail.

Bell is represented in this litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana and New Castle attorney Joel E. Harvey. Henry County is represented by the Indianapolis law firm of Stephenson Morow & Semler.

A bench trial before Barker is scheduled for Dec. 14 in the Indianapolis Division of the Southern District of Indiana.