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Conditions Lawsuit Against Indiana County Jail Certified as a Class Action

by Kevin Bliss

An Indiana federal district court held that a former jail detainee, Adam Bell, had presented sufficient evidence to allow certification of a class comprised of all persons currently confined, and who will be confined in the future, at the Henry County Jail. The ruling came in a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department that alleged unconstitutional and inhumane conditions of confinement.

Represented by the Civil Liberties Union of Indiana and attorney Joel E. Harvey, Bell filed suit while housed at the jail, saying it was originally designed to hold 76 prisoners but officials began adding additional bunks and mattresses to cells without required authorization, expanding the capacity to 116 prisoners.

Bell said the facility had been deemed overcrowded 100% of the time by the chief jail inspector of the Department of Corrections. Prisoners were forced to sleep on cell floors, in offices, in indoor recreation areas and near toilets. He also alleged that the jail was constantly understaffed which, with the overcrowded conditions, led to assaults and other violent incidents.

Henry County acknowledged the claims of additional beds but denied other allegations in the complaint. The county said the jail did not have more prisoners than permanent bunks, and denied claims that jail staff would not supply prisoners with proper grievance forms and refused to hear grievances except on approved forms.

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

U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker held the U.S. 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 the litigation throughout the entire proceeding. Exceptions include when the harm is continuing in nature, outlasting 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 continued for a subsequent group of people, a class can still be certified.

Judge Barker noted that Bell was “strongly committed” to this action and had promised to remain in contact with his attorney and make himself available for any depositions or trial. She said he therefore “adequately represented the interests of the class,” and certified the suit as a class action on June 25, 2019. The case remains pending. See: Bell v. Sheriff of Henry County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ind.), Case No. 1:19-cv-00557-SEB-MJD; 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 105856. 

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Additional source: city-countyobserver.com

Related legal case

Bell v. Sheriff of Henry County