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The Inmate Economy: Sheriffs Shuffle Prisoners To Battle Overcrowding

Charlotte Tuggle

Many Indiana county jails struggle with overcrowding, so a common practice is to transfer inmates to another jail that has available space. That process can cost local law enforcement thousands of dollars a month, as sheriffs are effectively renting cell space from each other.

In Wabash County Sheriff Bob Land’s office, there’s a sign hanging above his desk that reads, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them."

One of his “problems” is shared by many other Indiana sheriffs – his county has more criminals than the county jail can house. Land says it’s been that way for years, and he’s been sending inmates to other jails since he took office in 2011.

Land says the shuffle process is simple, and can be done quickly and on a rolling basis as needed.

“We determine that we need to transfer some prisoners out, we call that facility, see if they have space,” Land says. “And we go through the judge on court orders and transfer orders are signed, and they’re taken to that facility.”

But it comes at a price. The county is charged for every person they send out, per day.

“As of right now, Miami County I’m paying $35 and it’s probably going to go up to $40, I believe,” Land says. “Maybe $42, pending an agreement that I would have with Miami County.”

On the day of the interview, there were 43 Wabash County inmates in the Miami County facility. That’s about $1,500 just for one day’s time.

Indiana code mandates the county transferring the inmate be responsible for providing transportation, plus a daily cost of housing and “any additional costs reasonably necessary to maintain the health and welfare of a transferred inmate.”

The daily cost has usually been $35 a day, but the Indiana Sheriff's Association is currently studying whether it needs to be adjusted.

At that rate, Land says he shelled out more than half a million dollars just to Miami County last year.

“The only benefit to us – it gets them out of our facility for our overcapacity problem,” Land says. “Miami County, they have a new facility and they’ve got space, so they’re probably loving every county paying them. I know they’re loving me for the little over $600,000 I paid them last year.”

Even though Wabash County gets some money from the state Department of Correction, the county’s out nearly $400,000. But it could be even more expensive. Henry County has incurred legal fees because it’s been sued for its jail overcrowding. And in Howard County, litigation led the county to spend millions on new facilities.

Miami County’s jail is on the other side of the equation. The facility’s only seven years old and houses three times as many people as Wabash County’s jail.

“So, we have some from Huntington County, Cass County, Wabash County, Fulton County, Howard County, Carroll County…Madison County,” lists Sheriff Tim Miller.

He says he billed out more than $1 million total to those counties for contracted bed space last year.

Miller says that money goes to the county’s general fund. He sees a money-making opportunity in his jail’s empty space.

“The county has built a facility that has 240 beds,” Miller says. “If we are well under that, why shouldn’t I, as sheriff, receive inmates from other counties in order to generate revenue for our county?”

But there is some risk for the receiving county. More work for jail staff, including tending to transferred inmates’ medical considerations – and sometimes, according to Warren County Jail Commander Don Hensley, overseeing the most problematic offenders from other counties.

“We have had experience that when we do take people from other jails, they normally send you the people that are troublemakers or [have] several medical issues,” Hensley says.

The receiving county has the right to refuse a transfer if that happens. And some sheriffs don’t accept transfers at all for fear their jail will become overcrowded.

Still, transfers are only a temporary fix, and many counties who are transferring inmates out don’t have the money to build a new jail. Other options include setting up work release programs and putting people on house arrest.

And Kiminori Nakamura, a criminal justice professor at the University of Maryland, says the problem extends beyond the local level.

“At the end, if they’re just shifting populations from state to jail, local or local to state, you’re probably not fixing the sort of fundamental problem,” Nakamura says. “There’s too many people within the corrections system.”

To fix that, Nakamura says all affected parties have to find a viable solution. That includes the legislature, prisons and other corrections officials – meaning sheriffs won’t be able to fix the state’s overcrowding problem on their own.

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