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Cottom says jail's increased inmate counts must be dealt with sooner, rather than later

Times file photo: The Sullivan County Jail is struggling with high inmate occupancy levels.

Sullivan County Sheriff Clark Cottom is seeking support and solutions from the county council and commissioners over his concerns with a rise in jail occupancy.

The county’s jail has 54 fixed beds, 74 if you count an additional 20 polymer beds, yet the daily jail population has been consistently in the 80s, 90s and even topped 100 recently.

“I can’t in good conscience operate the jail at 200 percent capacity,” Cottom told the commissioners on Monday. “I can’t do it. I will not do it. I’m not going to do it. The people in this the county elected me to be sheriff and I have a duty and an obligation to do what I feel like I need to do.” 

The sheriff said at this level, the facility is not safe for staff, inmates or the public. 

“If we have a fire, or anything else?” he asked. “God help us. I want to reiterate that to this board.”

Cottom said his meeting with the council a week earlier began on the jail topic, but quickly “kind of went off the tracks, as far as I was concerned … (they) started talking about bridges, pensions, roads and sidewalks.”

While in favor of all those amenities, Cottom is sheriff first, noting, “… we have a problem and I have to tell you about it.”

Cottom reviewed the current situation has been created by a “pushback” from the state of convicted Level 6 felons, requiring those inmates be housed in their home county.

He also cited a trend of rising arrests over the last few years, mentioning increases in town marshals, even his own department “having higher expectations of my deputy sheriffs.”

A usual trend of lesser inmates during the winter months has not occurred this year. 

Just a year ago, Cottom said his department was able to make needed shower repairs, closing one wing at a time.

“This year, the count has not went down and has increased through the winter,” he said. “So I’m really afraid of what we’re going to be setting on in July. 

“We can’t build a jail in six months, we can’t add on to that jail in six months. It’s not going to happen. Building a new jail is a five-year plan.”

The sheriff said he’s talked with county judges and the former and current prosecutor about ways to perhaps get creative in reducing these numbers.

Housing inmates in other counties

Cottom said one way is to place inmates in other county jails, but those options are limited after doing a phone survey on Monday.

His findings say the closest counties with beds available are Parke (8) and Posey (15) 

“That’s it,” Cottom said.

As for the near future, Greene County would have 25 beds available when its jail is completed in April.

“That’s going to be very nearby lifesaver for us being a nearby county,” he said.

Work release

Cottom said six inmates are currently in work release status and could be housed in Vigo County — which he added was, “a small drop in the bucket.”

One reason that number is not higher, according to the sheriff, are some of the work release inmates living in Sullivan that work at Sav-A-Lot “don’t have two nickels to rub together … you’re riding a bicycle from the jail … so you can’t put them at Terre Haute and expect them to get down here on work release then get back to Terre Haute.

“If they worked in Terre Haute, that would be wonderful,” Cottom said, noting some have been in this program in Vigo, Clay and Knox counties.

“We have sex offenders so they can’t go to Vigo or Knox,” he added. “Our judges are not inclined to allow moving individuals to Knox because of previous experience problems at the work release center.”

It could be worse

Commissioners’ attorney Terry Modesitt, who is also the Vigo County Prosecutor, said a federal lawsuit is pending in his county alleging unconstitutional conditions at their jail.

“You could end up facing that at anytime,” he told Cottom.

“Anytime that could land on my desk,” the sheriff agreed.

Modesitt said the judges and his office would meet once a week, the judges saying “basically, we have to cut 20, 30 people loose. It was sad because we, like, well they wouldn’t be there if they shouldn’t be, but that’s what they had to do. Start cutting people loose.”

Cottom said this is being done on a smaller scale — compared to 300 inmates in Vigo — in Sullivan County, mentioning he’s been in direct communication “several times” with the two judges and both the former and current prosecutors.

“I get an email on Friday that just says here’s the list, you recommend 50 to cut loose or the judges are gonna pick the 50 they want to cut loose,” Modesitt said of his experience. “Nothing you can do about it. That’s the kind of stuff we have to deal with. Still have to deal with it.” 

“We don’t have a lot of real light offenders in our jail,” Cottom said. “We get the occasional driving while suspended or occasional 'Otis the Drunk' that has to be in jail. There’s some serious drug offenders.

“We have been creative and we are in daily communications with this courthouse.”

Modesitt said he has seen a 21 percent increase of serious felony charges filed in Vigo County each year. 

“I don’t see your jail count magically going down,” he said. 

“I encourage us to do something progressive now between the commissioners and the council and start down the right path as opposed to fiddle around like (Vigo County) for the last 20 years,” Cottom said. “And cost that county millions and millions and millions. How many millions of dollars, Terry, has it been?”

“I’ve heard estimates just because of the delays and all the people fighting the tax and everything … they’ve already lost $10 million,” Modesitt said.

Temporary solutions

Cottom said the state of Indiana reimburses counties $35 a day for Level 6 felony offenders, of which Sullivan County currently has 11.

“Those people used to be (Department of Corrections),” he said. “Just moving off the Level 6’s won’t take care of the problem. 

He said that money, about $11,700 a month, could be used to pay other counties to hold inmates — at no markup.

Also, he said the commissioners have an out of county housing fund which has $5,000 in it.

Cottom also said about $113,000 is still available as a temporary source of money, earmarked for repairs and improvements, generated from housing Vigo inmates.

“We’ve made improvements and there are more improvements that I’d like to make,” he said. “But this is a higher priority.

“So there is a source of money there Ray (commissioner McCammon),” he said. “It’s not permanent, it would be a temporary source of money.”

At this point, McCammon made a motion asking the commissioners to support Cottom at the next county council meeting. 

The commissioners — McCammon, Bob Davis and John Waterman — returned a 3-0 vote in favor.

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