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Jail renovation completed

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NEW: Trustee Dylan Hamilton, left, and Mike DeLong, right, work to cut sound-proofing boards to reduce the echoing in the new recreation room.
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FULL ROOM: The new room has garage doors above to let in fresh air, and the room is outfitted with heating and air conditioning units.
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OLD: This is where the jail used to hold church services and programingfor inmates. Sheriff Chris Newton said the room only held ten inmates at a time.

by Andrew Maciejewski - amaciejewski@h-ponline.com

More than 90 percent of the 130 inmates currently in custody at the Huntington County jail are repeat offenders, according to Huntington County Sheriff Department reports.

Currently, only 12 inmates are new to the jail system, and Sheriff Chris Newton said each of the 118 repeat offenders have returned between two to 11 times.

“It’s staggering,” Newton said.

“It’s astounding,” Cheif Deputy Chad Hammel added. “It’s just a revolving door.”

Those statistics sparked change last year under the leadership of former Sheriff Terry Stoffel and Newton, who was chief deputy at the time. They worked on a plan with the county commissioners and county council to renovate their recreation room into a space that will provide mental health and substance abuse programing to help inmates change their habits and stay out of jail.

“The whole point is that we want to lower that recidivism rate,” Newton said. “We’ve got to put a stop to this. We’ve got to offer some sort of services. Will it work? I don’t know yet. I really don’t know. Only time will tell, but what I do know is that what we’ve been doing isn’t working.”

The jail is overcapacity. There isn’t much room. It was only built to hold 99 inmates, but in 2017, the Indiana legislature passed a prison reform bill that sent Level 6 felony offenders from Indiana Department of Corrections prisons back to their respective county jails.

Newton said the Level 6 felons that returned to Huntington County formerly had a lot of treatment options available to them, since IDOC has therapists and the resources to help inmates fix the root causes of their issues, which Newton said is often related to substance abuse.

Before the recreation room was transformed into space available for programing, Newton said the jail used a single room that could hold a maximum of ten people for GED classes, church services or appointments with attorneys.

“You have 130 inmates, so that means there’s a lot of people that are probably not getting what they should,” Newton said.

The inmates lost their basketball court when the recreation room began its transformation, but they’ve gained access to a court-approved program that will actually encourage and allow them to get out of jail and start a new life.

“By attending these courses and getting the treatment, they can use those to be eligible for time cuts and get them out,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ve got a helping hand and they’ve got a start on a different life, but once they leave here, it’s in their hands. They have to choose to not want to come back to make a difference, but at least we can say we’ve gave you all of the tools and shown you how to use them.”

The Dream Center will be providing programing for the men, and the Bowen Center will provide programs for women. The jail will also begin providing GED classes for the first time in years.

The first year of classes are funded through a grant provided by L.A.C.E (Local Antidrug Coalition Efforts), and Newton said they hope the grants will continue.

“I mean, we’ll take money from wherever we can get it to keep this coming in,“ he said.

Newton said he is excited that everything is finally complete, since he and Stoffel hoped the project would be done before Stoffel left his position. He said they were getting so desperate to use the space that he offered to pay for a lock on the door, which cost more than $3,000, but DLZ, the contractor, helped pitch in since the project took so long to complete.

Newton said they didn’t initially realize that the concrete floors and masonry walls would echo as bad as they did, so they had to bid out a soundproofing project, which was supposed to cost more than $20,000.

“It was like talking in a large metal box,” he said. “Every time you talked, you heard yourself 50 times again.”

Luckily, a trustee had prior experience installing similar material in order to reduce the echoing in the recreation room, so overall, the soundproofing only cost around $6,000.

Now, the room is ready for church services and court-approved programing, something that’s never been offered before.

“The whole point of this big push is that we are trying to lower this recidivism rate so that the same people we are seeing now are not the same ones we are seeing in the future,” he said.