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Federal judge rules inmates suffering ‘irreparable harm’ at Allen Co. Jail, orders immediate changes

Sheriff, county commissioners must address staffing, safety, welfare concerns after class action lawsuit
A federal judge has found for the plaintiff in a class action lawsuit targeting the Allen...
A federal judge has found for the plaintiff in a class action lawsuit targeting the Allen County Jail.(WPTA)
Published: Apr. 1, 2022 at 11:36 AM EDT
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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA) - In a ruling likely to have wide-ranging impact, a U.S. District Court judge has found in favor of the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit addressing myriad deficiencies at the Allen County Jail. His order demands swift action by the sheriff and the county commissioners to address concerns that include overcrowding, staffing and the treatment of inmates.

The case was filed in January 2020 by Vincent Morris, an inmate at the jail, and was granted class-action status, meaning the matter would be heard on behalf of others presently held at the jail or to be incarcerated in the future. The ACLU of Indiana provided legal counsel for the plaintiff.

As noted in the lawsuit, the Allen County Jail was built in 1981 and has undergone several revisions since opening. It was operating with 741 beds at the end of 2019, with 863 inmates at the facility, according to the Indiana Department of Corrections.

“As a result of the overcrowding, some blocks have prisoners who are sleeping on mattresses on plastic platforms, called ‘boats,’ on the floors of cells because the permanent beds are occupied,” the lawsuit claimed. “This causes an enormous amount of tension as space is extremely tight. Toilets are in each cell and when prisoners are on the floor they have to be stepped over for the prisoners in the permanent beds to use the toilets. The ‘extra’ prisoners in each cell are forced to sleep near toilets.”

Overcrowding is a concern that has been discussed as Allen County officials launched what is expected to be a years-long process that could lead to construction of a new jail -- one that could be built well outside of downtown Fort Wayne.

Other allegations in the lawsuit include:

  • “The prisoners are locked into their cells for the evening and much of the day and there simply is insufficient room in the cells when they have someone sleeping on the floor.”
  • “Recreation is provided infrequently and some cell blocks receive no recreation outside of their cell areas.”
  • “Much of the Jail is linear in structure and there is inadequate audio and video surveillance equipment in the Jail to monitor the prisoners.”
  • “The prisoners are not adequately monitored by staff. As a result, assaults between prisoners are frequent, aggravated by the overcrowded conditions.”
  • “If prisoners are in medical or other forms of distress, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get prompt attention from guards... There have been at least 4 suicides in the Jail since 2011.”

The lawsuit includes detailed accounts by Morris, ranging from medical incidents he experienced to “dangerous conditions in the blocks where Mr. Morris has been housed.” The court documents show that Morris filed grievances related to the conditions prior to filing the lawsuit. He said the complaints were returned to him, marked as “noted,” but that no significant action followed.

“We’re pretty elated at JAVA,” JAVA leader Nicole Guant said. “We’re hoping this federal ruling will validate what we’ve said all along.”

Morris sought a permanent injunction that would require the jail and those operating it to “ensure that the conditions of confinement at the Allen County Jail comply with the United States Constitution.”

Judge Damon Leichty, of the Northern District, issued that injunction on Thursday. Leichty was appointed to the federal bench in 2019 by Pres. Donald Trump. His order acknowledged a multitude of problems at the facility and requires that the sheriff and county commissioners increase staffing, enhance safety measures, ensure that prisoners have access to recreation outside their cell blocks for at least 5 one-hour periods each week and develop a plan -- within 45 days -- to address long-term solutions to ongoing problems (which may involve construction of a new jail).

“Up to this point accountability has been lacking,” Guant said. “There’s a lot of finger pointing and bottom line is that we all have to come together to fix this problem.”

This is a developing story. ABC21 has reached out to Sheriff David Gladieux and members of the Allen County Commission for their response. Gladieux -- who took office in December 2014 -- will be succeeded by a new sheriff to be chosen in November’s election. The order from Judge Leichty notes that the sheriff “concedes that summary judgment should be granted for the class” and states that “Sheriff Gladieux is aware of these conditions at the jail but has been unable to rectify them.”

This report will be updated with new information. View the court documents below.

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