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New Indianapolis Jail Will Not be Run by a Private Prison Company, but is Being Built on Contaminated Land

by Kevin W. Bliss

The Indianapolis City-County Council has approved a proposal to enter into a 40-year lease to build a new 3,000-bed criminal justice center in the Twin Aire neighborhood of Indianapolis. The facility is expected to be completed by 2022 and will combine the Marion County courts, a mental and physical health assessment and intervention center, and detention facility. 

For-profit prison company CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, has run the Marion County Jail II for the past 20 years. JPMorgan Chase & Company, one of the banks that finances CoreCivic, has been criticized for supporting the private detention industry, and announced in March 2019 that it would stop lending to such companies. JPMorgan said it would underwrite Indianapolis’ new jail, which is a piece of Mayor Joe Hogsett’s signature criminal justice reform plan seeking to address the issues of overcrowding and recidivism. 

The city is seeking $610 million in bond financing for the project, and will pay the Indianapolis-Marion County Building Authority to lease the criminal justice center over 40 years. The new facility will not be privately operated, and the city’s contract with CoreCivic will end once the new jail opens. [See: PLN, Aug. 2018, p.49].

Marion County joins other jurisdictions, such as California, Nevada and Georgia, in a policy shift to reconsider contracts with private prison companies to run detention facilities – a practice that began in its modern form in the early 1980s. One major concern is that private prison industry profits are based on the number of beds that are filled, creating an incentive to prioritize incarceration over other sentencing alternatives. 

Zach Adamson, vice-president of the City-County Council, said, “The idea that there would be a profit to be made through the imprisonment of our neighbors is something that’s abhorrent to a number of people – many of our constituents cannot process that. Criminal justice is not getting better as long as our primary concern is looking to cut corners and save costs.”

The new Indianapolis criminal justice center hopes to provide care for “super utilizers,” people who continue to recidivate due to mental health issues and drug addiction. Statistics show that 40 percent of the jail’s current population has some form of mental health problem, while 85 percent of prisoners have a substance abuse problem.

Council president Vop Osili said the project will provide “real criminal justice reform and ... balance the health and safety needs of the community with those arrested and incarcerated.” An additional expected benefit is a decrease in recidivism, which should help reduce the $440 million that Indianapolis spends annually on its criminal justice system, including the $16.5 million paid to CoreCivic for running the Marion County Jail II.

One downside, though, is that the new criminal justice center is being built on a contaminated site that was previously used for a gas and coke facility. According to The Indiana Lawyer, the property has a “toxic legacy” with contaminants that “include volatile organic compounds, semi-volatile organic compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), ammonia nitrate and nitrite, according to reports from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.”

An April 30, 2019 report by ATC Group Services, LLC noted that from 1908 until July 2007, the land was used for a manufactured gas plant, which produced “coal tar, naphthalene, light oil, water gas, molten sulfur, ammonium sulfate and dyes.” While the report concluded that “an unreasonable risk to human health and the environment does not appear likely” if remediation systems are properly installed and operated, some officials, including judges who will be working at the criminal justice center, have expressed concerns.

“We just want to make absolutely sure – not hopefully sure – that this is a safe place for everybody,” stated Marion County Superior Court Judge Mark Stoner. 

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Sources: bloomberg.com, fortune.com, indy­star.com, theindianalawyer.com