On Friday, when a tour group of elected and appointed officials arrived at the Monroe County jail’s laundry room, two industrial-sized dryers were spinning, which made the area smell like freshly washed clothes.
Leading the tour was jail commander Kyle Gibbons, who said about the laundry, “This is the only part of the jail that smells normal.”
In the rest of the jail, the odor is a mix of bodily waste, fresh paint, and cleaning fluids.
The fresh paint and cleaning fluids are part of sheriff Ruben Marté’s effort to clean and sanitize the jail to rectify conditions that confronted him after he was sworn into office at the start of the year.
The tour was another chance for more decision makers to see first-hand the conditions that have been depicted in slide decks presented at several public meetings starting in late January.
On Friday afternoon, it was members of Monroe County’s substance use disorder awareness commission (SUDAC) who toured the jail.
The group included county commissioner Penny Githens, county councilor Peter Iversen, county health administrator Lori Kelley, deputy public defender Karen Wrenbeck, and Nick Volyles, who’s executive director of the Indiana Recovery Alliance.
Before the tour started, a point of emphasis for Marté was the idea that the people who are incarcerated at the jail really do need to be separated from the rest of society, at least for now.
Marté put it like this: “Sometimes people truly believe that we have people here who just jaywalked.” He continued, “That’s not the case. So we really have hardened criminals in there.”
In support of that idea, the information given by Marté and Gibbons included the number of inmates who’ve been charged with the most serious crimes.
Of the 189 inmates currently incarcerated at the Monroe County jail, 16 are being held on murder or attempted murder charges, Gibbons said. Another 132 inmates are being held on other felony charges.
That makes 148 out of 189, or about 78 percent, who are in jail charged with a felony.
About the hardened criminal population at the jail, Marté added, “But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t treat them humanely—it doesn’t mean that at all.”
The humane treatment of the current inmate population has been a focus of new jail commander Kyle Gibbons, who briefed the SUDAC before walking them through some of the areas of the jail that have been the focus of cleaning and sanitation efforts.
Those efforts are now supported by the creation and hire of a new position at the jail, called the facilities coordinator.
On Friday’s tour, Gibbons was candid about the fact that keeping the jail clean and sanitized will be an ongoing challenge.
In one hallway, next to some cells where some severely mentally ill inmates are locked up, the area looked and smelled like it was in obvious need of a serious cleaning effort. Gibbons told the group it had been cleaned, sanitized and painted just a few weeks earlier—that’s now quickly things deteriorate.
In that area, an inmate in one of the cells knocked on the cell window. Gibbons asked him what was wrong. The man talked quietly about wanting something to eat, his voice cracking. Gibbons summoned a guard and a nurse to go in to check on him, because he’d noticed something different about that inmate. It’s the first time Gibbons had seen the man cry, or show any other emotion, he said.
During the tour, inmates showed they know who Gibbons is. One called out: “Commander for President!”
In the new mental health block, Gibbons pointed to the newly installed working clocks, which help address the most frequent question that jail staff get from inmates: “What time is it?”
But next to the clock on the wall were the dangling wires to a new big-screen television—which had been recently installed, but was no longer hanging on the wall. The TV had been a casualty of a violent outburst from an inmate, who had to be moved out of that cell block, Gibbons said.
The tour group got a look at the ongoing systematic clearing and painting of the jail that’s underway. An inmate worker crew was laboring away in one cell block rolling blue paint onto the walls—it was fresh enough that the tour group got a warning about wet paint.
On some of the cell walls, which were prepped for painting, but had not yet been coated, some graffiti was still legible. Some of it was generic. One inscription read: “True love never dies.” Another said, “God is an almighty God.”
Other graffiti was specific to Monroe County: “Only Deikhoff can judge me.” Despite the misspelling, that’s a clear reference to circuit court judge Mary Ellen Diekhoff.
Deputy public defender Karen Wrenbeck, who was a part of Friday’s tour group, was not making her first visit to the inside of the jail. She was keen that others in the group saw the two closet-like rooms that are counted as places where attorneys can meet with their clients.
Wrenbeck said it’s hard to communicate through the hole in the glass that separates the inmate from the attorney. She typically just stands in the doorway in the partition that divides the room, she said.
The right allocation of space for attorneys to meet with clients will be one of the decisions to be made about the new jail facility tha Monroe County will likely be constructing in the next few years.
How long it takes to open a new facility will depend on the ability of county officials to arrive at a consensus on key elements like location, size, and budget for a new jail facility.
The county commissioners established a community justice response committee (CJRC)—with evolving membership, including some county councilors, judges, the sheriff, the public defender and the county prosecutor—to provide advice how to respond to the work of two consultants.
The consultants delivered their studies of Monroe County’s criminal justice system in June 2021. The conclusion of the consultants is that the current jail is a failing facility that isn’t meeting constitutionally required levels of care.
In recent weeks, commissioners have suspended meetings of the full CJRC, and have instead asked smaller subgroups to take up more focused work.
The county council is looking to establish its own committee to focus on fiscal aspects of constructing a new jail facility.