Work will start next week on the new Starke County Sheriff’s Department and Detention Center. County officials turned ceremonial shovels of dirt yesterday during the official groundbreaking for the $14 million project. The 146 bed jail will replace the existing 63 bed facility across from the courthouse. It opened in 1976, and Sheriff Oscar Cowen says a lot has changed since he joined the department in May of 1980.
“That facility didn’t house 15 to 20 inmates on a given week, and we didn’t house possibly one female, maybe for a DUI overnight and she was out. In the past 35 years, the jail population has increased to overcrowedness. The capacity is 62, and there are times we have 95 inmates,” Cowen said.
Cowen adds he’s been reprimanded several times by the state jail inspector due to the cramped conditions. The county was also sued in 2011 by a jail inmate due to overcrowding. Cowen has worked closely with Pulaski County Sheriff Mike Gayer for the past few years to house prisoners there but says that’s just a short-term solution.
“I know there’s been a lot of talk about cost, but what people don’t understand is the cost that we’ve got to do to house them somewhere else, having to travel and send workers to Pulaski County to bring them back for courts. No matter how or which way you work at it, it’s a cost. It’s an obligation to the county to have a facility to house people who can’t obey the laws. It’s the obligation of the sheriff to have a facility that’s safekeeping for the inmates,” Cowen said.
Starke Circuit Judge Kim Hall says those needs will continue to grow if the sentencing overhaul proposed by the Indiana General Assembly takes effect as scheduled in 2014. That proposal would keep D felons out of the Department of Correction and locked up in county jails.
“That’s significant because over half the people we send to the Department of Corrections are Class D felons. That’s the lowest level of felony. That’s theft and other similar types of crimes, drug possessions. So what are we going to do? In 2014 if that legislation passes, over 50 percent of the people we normally send to prisons won’t be going. They’ll be staying here,” said Cowen.
The anticipated completion date for the new jail facility is spring of 2015. The structure will house both the jail and the 911 dispatch center. The county is modifying and expanding an existing building, so work will be able to continue through the winter months.