The Help Not Handcuffs Coalition decided 10 a.m. Friday was the right time to talk about its opposition to the possible jail relocation, despite the Allen County commissioners canceling their weekly meeting.
The group planned to attend the commissioners' Friday morning meeting, but the meeting was canceled Wednesday. Instead, about 20 people gathered in front of Citizens Square to hold signs and a news conference.
Commissioner Richard Beck said at the commissioners meeting May 6 that officials had not yet decided if a new Allen County Jail needs to be built. But, he said, the county is actively looking for 60 to 70 acres of suitable land. It would need to have Citilink bus service, public water and sewer, suitable soils and broadband access, he said.
A 1,500-bed jail has been estimated to cost $300 million, but Beck said the county likely needs closer to 1,100 to 1,200 beds.
Pastor Karen Staton of Destiny Life Center in Fort Wayne said she receives calls most weeks from inmates “who shouldn't be in jail” because they suffer from mental illnesses.
“Let's stop criminalizing mental illness, and let's get them the help that they need,” Staton said. “Let's save lives, save families and save money by looking at this from another approach.”
A federal judge set Sunday as the deadline for the county to submit a plan to address overcrowding and understaffing at the Allen County Jail. The deadline was set in the ruling on a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners.
Tony Borton, a Williams-Woodland Park resident, said it is unacceptable that the commissioners canceled Friday's meeting when a deadline is looming.
“We don't know how in the short term they are going to fix the deplorable conditions, and we don't know how they plan to keep the jail from being overcrowded in the future,” Borton said. “But we do know that the commissioners are taking steps to start the construction of a new jail.”
Michael Green, the commissioners' public information officer, said in an email Friday that the commissioners can't submit a plan until the court opens Monday. The commissioners don't plan to release anything to the public until the plan is filed, Green said.
Sean Collentine, of the Alternatives for Incarceration work group, said finding a solution to appropriately reduce the jail population is going to take “collaboration among police, prosecutors, judges and us.”
The Rev. Timothy Murphy, senior pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church, said more than 300 people have signed a petition that asks the commissioners to fund mental health services and other alternatives instead of a new jail.
“We need a system that helps people heal. We can do better than further traumatizing people that need treatment,” Murphy said. “That's a hope held not just by me, not just among those standing here today.”
Alicia Roush, co-founder of Changemakers Fort Wayne, shared some of her experiences from spending about a year in the Allen County Jail. She recounted incidents of inmates going through drug withdrawal without medical help, inmates with mental health issues being put in segregation cells without treatment and cells being unsupervised.
“These conditions won't change with a shiny new jail,” Roush said. “These conditions need to change now.”
To sign the petition, go online to https://bit.ly/3Pixho2.