Oct. 26—The Howard County Jail is "chronically and seriously overcrowded," has frequent water leaks in cells, doesn't allow proper recreational time for inmates, is prone to "frequent" fights and injuries and violates the requirements of the U.S. Constitution, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.
The civil rights organization, on the behalf of county jail inmate Michael Johnston, filed on Thursday a class action lawsuit against Howard County and Howard County Sheriff Jerry Asher, asking a federal judge to find that the jail violates the U.S. Constitution and to order that the county make any and all improvements to the jail so it complies with the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit alleges the 30-year-old jail has permanent beds for approximately 360 people but regularly houses more than that. A jail is considered overcrowded when it exceeds approximately 80% of its capacity.
As a result of the overcrowding, the lawsuit claims "extra" inmates are required to sleep on the floors of cells; tensions between inmates are elevated and injuries and fights occur frequently, causing some to require medical attention; inmates are mostly kept locked in their cell and are not allowed in the "day area to engage in any meaningful exercise" or outside recreation; and results in non-violent and violent offenders being placed in the same area, as well as inmates with mental health issues being placed with violent offenders.
"Space is so tight that the person on the floor must stand up when another person uses the toilet," the lawsuit claims. "If they do not, male prisoners on the floor will be splattered with urine."
The lawsuit also claims frequent checks of inmates by correctional staff are supposed to happen at least every hour but do not, that there are areas where the jail cameras do not see and there are times where no correctional officer is manning the control area.
For Johnston, specifically, the lawsuit claims he, as a Muslim, is not able to do his daily prayer in a clean environment as required by his religion due to cells often being dirty or wet due to water leakage from the jail's pipes.
"The conditions of the Howard County Jail result in the denial of basic human needs and minimal civilized measure of life's necessities, and amount to punishment," the lawsuit claims.
Additionally, the lawsuit alleges county officials have known about the overcrowding and other issues at the jail for years but "have failed to take the necessary steps to resolve the overcrowding and other problems" and are "deliberately indifferent to the substantial risk of serious harm to the prisoners caused by the conditions of the jail."
Howard County Attorney Alan Wilson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a statement, Kenneth Falk, of ACLU of Indiana and one of the attorneys filing the lawsuit on behalf of Johnston, called the living conditions of the Howard County Jail "dangerous and unacceptable."
"Counties must ensure the safety and well-being of individuals who are incarcerated," Falk said in the statement.
The lawsuit is one that some county officials feared would eventually happen.
Jim Papcek, a former county councilman, told the County Council in March 2020 that the county should consider adding onto the jail to help deal with overcrowding. At the time, the jail's inmate population was more than 460.
"No one likes it, but the time is coming for one new pod at least," Papacek said at the time. "I think we ought to be proactive and have a plan in place. We're not going to build it next week, but I think just discussing and getting a plan in place is something we need to do. There's going to be an inmate some day who's going to file a suit because of the overcrowding."
Tyler Juranovich can be reached at 765-454-8577, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @tylerjuranovich.