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Jail Expansion Project now complete

Featured above is a view of one of the new jail cells located at the newly expanded Huntington County Jail.
Featured above is a view of one of the new jail cells located at the newly expanded Huntington County Jail. Photo by Katelynn Farley.

Thursday, Jan. 13, marked a momentous occasion for Huntington County. Representatives from the Huntington County Sheriff’s Department, Huntington City Police Department, County Council, County Commissioners and more were present at the Huntington County Sheriff’s Office and Jail for a ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of the jail’s new expansion.

The jail, which was built in the 1980s, has been overpopulated for many years. According to Huntington County Sheriff Chris Newton, the desire to have more room and take care of this overcrowding problem didn’t start with him, but has been shared by the past five Huntington County sheriffs.

“We just didn’t have that push,” Newton said. “Five sheriffs – almost 40 years – have envisioned this project and prayed it would come to fruition. With changes in legislation that requires us to keep level six offenders in our facilities for longer amounts of time, that was the tipping point that got this whole project jump started.”

The change in legislation dates back to 2015, when Class D felons were re-classified as Level 6 offenders. Before this change, Class D felons were sent to prisons within the Indiana Department of Corrections (DOC) system. Because of the change, Level 6 offenders had to be kept in local jails instead. The Huntington County Jail was originally built to house 99 inmates, but has seen the number of occupants soar well past that.

“This has been a long time coming,” Newton said. “We’ve been over capacity, it’s been an ongoing problem and it’s been identified. And with today’s crime trends, it likely won’t end anytime soon.”

Rob Miller, president of the Huntington County Commissioners, was present at the ribbon cutting ceremony to thank those in attendance and give kudos to all those who had been involved in the project. He also gave a little bit of background information for the project.

“Today is a great day for public safety,” Miller said. “Today, we met our obligation to the public and to our citizens… we had safety issues for our staff and our jail population. So, we began the dialogue and conversation for (jail) staff, the county commissioners and county council. We all arrived at the same conclusion – that we needed to expand the jail to solve this problem.”

County Council voted to put the mechanism in place to pay for the jail project in January 2019. Ground was broken on the project on June 17, 2020.

“Nineteen months later, January 2022, here we are – mission accomplished,” Miller said.

Miller thanked the company that designed the jail, DLZ of Indianapolis, as well as Weigand Construction, of Fort Wayne, who built the expansion. He also thanked past and present county council members, judges, as well as former and current commissioners for their work.

According to Newton, there have only been five jails built in Huntington County since 1834. With the expansion, the current jail now has an additional 31,190 square feet. Many of the major issues that the overcrowding has caused – such as having to have inmates sleep on the floor – will now be resolved.

“We (sometimes) have people sleeping on the floors,” Newton said. “They’re on a mat and what we call a boat and it keeps them elevated, but…they’re human beings and they need to be treated as such. Seeing somebody laying on the floor is not right, and it doesn’t feel good. Nobody has ever liked it and that’s why I say five sheriffs have wanted to see this get done.”

The next phase of the project will be to move the inmates into the expanded portion of the building and then remodel the old portion. According to Newton, the old booking area will be taken out, as well as the drunk tank, some offices, a law library and a laundry area. Once that is done, new offices, a classroom, a nurses’ office and four medical cells will be put in.

“We’re having a lot more people in here with medical problems,” Newton said. “If they come in on a breathing machine, we have to give them access to a breathing machine and you can’t put that in general population. And especially with the virus going around, we have to have room where, if somebody is sick, they can be isolated.”

After the ribbon cutting ceremony was complete, those present at the ceremony were invited to walk around the expanded parts of the jail so they could see for themselves what had been added and changed.

Newton is not only excited about the expansion because it solves a problem that has been ongoing, but because of how it impacts his staff.

“It didn’t really hit me until I looked up at the podium and I saw everybody standing here,” Newton said. “I looked at all my staff members out there, especially my jail staff. When I see them standing there and smiling and happy, I think that what we’ve done here is created a safer environment for them to work in. I would say that’s the biggest thing for me, is being able to create a safer environment for my staff and the inmates.”