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Indiana Prisoners Win Partial Summary Judgment in Jail Conditions Case

by Ed Lyon 

The Vigo County jail in Terre Haute, Indiana has a well-documented history of constitutional violations. In 2002, the county entered into a consent decree to cap the jail’s population at no more than 268 prisoners, among other relief resulting from a federal class-action lawsuit. 

Eleven years later, little if any progress had been made regarding the original settlement agreement. 

With the help of the ACLU, an action was filed in Vigo County Superior Court claiming breach of contract, seeking monetary damages and specific enforcement of the agreements the county had entered into more than a decade earlier.

By 2016, Vigo County had done pitifully little to comply with the 2002 consent decree and the state contract breach and enforcement suit. The new jail that the county had agreed to build had not yet been planned or funded, and no location site had been selected.

As of October 11, 2016, the jail’s population was 328 prisoners – 60 more than the cap agreed to in 2002. This resulted in dozens of prisoners sleeping on the floor, some sustaining injuries from other prisoners leaving their bunks at night to use the toilet and stepping on them, while others were soiled by feces and urine from overflowing commodes due to a failing plumbing system. The excessive number of prisoners prevented the jail’s medical staff from providing adequate care. 

Indianapolis attorneys Michael K. Sutherlin and Bradley C. Lohmeier filed a new class-action suit in federal court for the beleaguered prisoners. Nearly two years later, in October 2018, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Jane E. Magnus-Stinson granted partial summary judgment in the prisoners’ favor. She ordered the immediate hiring of adequate security and medical staff, at least three hours of out-of-cell recreation time each week, increased safety and prisoner welfare checks, and periodic reports concerning the construction of the new jail.

She warned that failure to comply with those orders would result in further action under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, such as the formation of a three-judge panel to consider additional measures, including a prisoner release order or an order to close the jail. 

On December 19, 2018, the district court awarded $75,000 in interim attorney fees and costs to the prisoners’ counsel. The case remains pending. See: Huerta v. Ewing, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ind.), Case No. 2:16-cv-00397-JMS-MJD. 

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Additional sources: usnews.com, tribstar.com

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