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Prisoners at Indiana Jail Certified as a Class in Conditions of Confinement Suit

by Kevin Bliss

In June 2019, an Indiana federal district court held that a former jail detainee, Adam Bell, had presented sufficient evidence to fulfill the requirements to certify a class comprised of all current and future prisoners at the Henry County jail in a lawsuit alleging unconstitutional and inhumane conditions of confinement.

Bell filed the lawsuit while being held at the county jail, saying the facility was originally designed to house 76 prisoners but officials began adding additional bunks and mattresses to cells without required authorization, expanding the capacity to 116 beds.

He said the facility had been deemed overcrowded 100 percent of the time by the chief jail inspector of the Indiana Department of Correction. Prisoners had been forced to sleep on floors, in offices, in indoor recreation areas and near cellblock toilets. Bell also alleged that the facility was constantly understaffed, which, with the overcrowded conditions, had resulted in assaults, other violent incidents and “continuous tension and dangerous situations in the [cell] block.”

Henry County acknowledged the claims of additional beds added to the jail but denied that Bell’s claims accurately stated the facts. County officials said they did not have more prisoners than permanent bunks; they also denied all other allegations in the complaint, including claims that jail staff would not supply prisoners with proper grievance forms and refused to hear grievances except those submitted on approved forms.

Bell asked that the district court certify the case as a class action. Henry County responded that he did not qualify as a class representative because he was no longer held at the jail and therefore could not fairly protect the interests of the class members.

U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker noted the Supreme Court had ruled in Sosna v. Iowa, 419 U.S. 393 (1975) that there are exceptions to Article III of the Constitution requiring that a plaintiff have a personal stake in litigation throughout the entire proceedings. Exceptions include when the harm is continuing in nature and outlasts the named plaintiff. If a claim is “so inherently transitory” that it could not survive live controversy long enough for one individual to certify a class, but the deprivations continue for a subsequent group of people, a class can still be certified.

Judge Barker noted that Bell was “strongly committed” to the case, and had promised to remain in contact with his attorney and make himself available for any depositions or trial. She therefore found Bell “adequately represented the interests of the class” and certified the case as a class action on June 25, 2019. A non-jury trial has been scheduled for December 2019.

The class members are jointly represented by attorney Joel E. Harvey and the Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. See: Bell v. Sheriff of Henry County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ind.), Case No. 1:19-cv-00557-SEB-MJD. 

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Additional source: city-countyobserver.com

Related legal case

Bell v. Sheriff of Henry County