Sheriff relieved that long-developing jail project about to start

untington County Sheriff Chris Newton (left) and Chief Deputy Chad Hammel look over engineering documents for the expansion project that is close to getting underway at the Huntington County Jail, in Huntington. This project, which was prompted by overcrowding at the jail, will see over 30,000 square feet added to the facility.
untington County Sheriff Chris Newton (left) and Chief Deputy Chad Hammel look over engineering documents for the expansion project that is close to getting underway at the Huntington County Jail, in Huntington. This project, which was prompted by overcrowding at the jail, will see over 30,000 square feet added to the facility. Photo by Steve Clark.

The Huntington County Jail was built to house 99 inmates.

But over his 25 years with the Huntington County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Chris Newton says the jail’s occupancy has always been higher than that.

“Routinely, since I’ve been here, we’ve always been at 120-ish,” he remarks.

And just four months ago, the jail hit its highest occupancy ever, with 175 inmates.

With a number like that in the back of his mind, Newton couldn’t be more relieved that a long-developing project to expand the jail is finally on the verge of starting.

The project will see the jail, which is located at 332 E. State St., expanded in the direction of Warren Street. A total of 30,700 square feet will be added to the facility, which was built in 1984.

And, most critically, the jail’s occupancy threshold will increase to 233.

Newton says one of the biggest reasons the jail’s occupancy has soared as high as 175 is due to state legislation from 2015, which reclassified Class D felons as Level 6 offenders. Previously, Class D felons were sent to prisons in the Indiana Department of Correction system; now, these reclassified felons stay in local jails.

Newton says the sheriff’s department was told that the jail’s occupancy would increase by only 20 percent as a result of this change.

“That wasn’t the case,” he says. “We went up, probably, 60 percent.”

Presently, Newton says 62 of the jail’s inmates are Level 6 offenders.

While discussions about building on to the jail started years ago, says Newton, the Level 6 change proved to be the catalyst that gave the expansion project momentum. As Newton and personnel from the sheriff’s department and county government raised questions about what an expanded jail should look like, they took fact-finding trips to answer those queries. Those trips took them as close by as the Adams County Jail and as far away as Georgia.

In the Peach State, Newton and company visited SteelCell of North America, a manufacturer of prefabricated detention cells. These cells are made of steel and coated with a substance similar to a spray-on truck bed liner. Units contain a bed, toilet, sink and desk.
Newton says these cells will be used in the expanded jail. One of his favorite things about them is their sturdiness compared to brick and mortar cells.

“When you have people who sit in there, day in and day out, they’ll take whatever they can and they’ll pick and pick and pick and get to a hole till they can eventually slide stuff back and forth to the cell beside them,” says Newton of traditional cells.

Chief Deputy Chad Hammel says that kind of defacement won’t be an issue with the new cells.

“You’re not going to get through that steel,” he says. “And the coating can be fixed easily.”

The cells are made to be stacked; the expanded jail will feature two floors of them. After the cells are set up at the construction site, the exterior of the jail will be built around them.

Newton notes that the jail walls will not be flush with the cells. Rather, the walls will be spaced back to create a corridor behind the cells. From there, says Newton, the cells’ utilities will be able to be accessed.

“All plumbing, electrical, you name it, can be taken care of and fixed in the back without ever having to go in that cell,” he explains.

Newton says this will make it easier for contractors, such as plumbers and electricians, to come to the jail on service calls. It will also, he says, prevent a potential situation where a tool is misplaced in a cell and later found by an inmate.

“And before you know it, we have a problem,” says Newton. “Now, none of that will happen.”

In addition to regular cells, the jail will be getting more segregated cells, which are for inmates who require constant monitoring. These inmates, says Hammel, are ones who are withdrawing from drugs, have medical conditions or are suicidal.

Currently, the jail only has two of these cells. Because of that small number, there are often multiple inmates in each cell.

This won’t be the case in the expanded jail, says Hammel, which will boast 11 segregated cells. The cells will be near the jail’s booking station, he adds, meaning that a jail officer will be in close proximity to the inmates at all times.

While it’s important to monitor inmates in segregated cells, it’s also crucial, of course, to have eyes on the rest of the jail’s populace, says Newton. To that end, the expanded jail will have an observation tower in the new detention area.

“From this position up there, you’re able to look down into every single block, or pod, and you’re basically at eye level with the second-story cells as well,” explains Hammel. “There’s just not a lot of hiding spots at that point if there’s a fight or somebody’s doing something to hurt someone else.”

The tower will be constructed with one-way glass, permitting occupants to see out while preventing inmates from seeing in. The glass will also be able to be removed in case of an emergency, says Newton.

“If we have a disruption, if there’s a fight, if there’s, God forbid, a riot … we will have special things in that glass that we can open up and drop a canister of gas if need be,” he states.

Additionally, the tower will contain a control panel that enables the occupants to lock the jail’s doors, turn off the water and more.

Another new security feature at the expanded jail will be a body scanner for visitors. Newton says the device, which will be similar to the scanners at airport security checkpoints, should detect any drugs that visitors might attempt to smuggle to inmates.

“Now people are bringing in fentanyl,” observes Newton. “They’re bringing in heroin. They’re bringing in pills that are so much more powerful; hard to detect, a lot smaller.

“So, they can bring quite a quantity in.”

Newton says that drugs are why many of the jail’s Level 6 offenders have run afoul of the law. When those individuals were classified as Class D felons, he notes, they had access to Department of Correction programs that helped them work on their substance abuse issues. Newton says that he, Circuit Court Judge Davin Smith and Superior Court Judge Jennifer Newton have endeavored to offer similar programs at the jail and will continue doing so in the expanded jail.

One of those programs will be J-Cap. This program gives inmates who have a shared desire to overcome their drug addictions the opportunity to live together at the jail and positively influence one another.

“We can take one cell and put people who are working together in their own little community, their own little environment,” explains Newton.
“They kind of run it in there,” he continues. “They lean on each other. They depend on each other.”

Newton adds that court-approved substance abuse classes will continue to be offered. The Awakening Church conducts a class for male inmates while Bowen Center runs a class for female inmates.

Church services will continue to be held in the expanded jail as well, says Newton, along with Bible classes.

Ultimately, Newton says all of these offerings are means of combating recidivism – which is the likelihood that a convicted criminal will commit a repeat offense.

“We’ve got to break that cycle,” he says.

On Monday, April 27, the Huntington County Commissioners tapped Weigand Construction to build the jail expansion, which was designed by DLZ. The commissioners awarded the Fort Wayne construction company the contract for $17,057,900.

A detached maintenance facility will also be constructed during the project. The Huntington County Commissioners are still determining who will perform this work, after construction bids came in higher than anticipated. The facility will go up across from the jail on East State Street.
Newton says he doesn’t foresee the expansion project being too disruptive to the jail’s operations. One change, he says, will be the permanent relocation of the Huntington County Dispatch communications tower, which will be rebuilt on Flaxmill Road. Another change, he says, will be the introduction of a simplified menu in the jail’s kitchen, which is temporarily moving so that the kitchen space can be expanded. This temporary menu will feature easy-to-make meals that have been approved by a dietician, says Newton.

Tom Wall, president of the Huntington County Commissioners, says that once the bonding process for the project has been completed, Weigand Construction will get to work.

Newton praises the commissioners, Huntington County Council and other county and city entities for the teamwork they’ve displayed to make this project happen.

“I've got to be honest, we’ve been talking about this for such a long period of time, I’m very excited to see this progress and to see the project moving forward,” he says. “We have got great response from within our community.

“I think everybody feels the same way – they want a safe community.”