VALPARAISO — When an inmate threatened to sue the Porter County Jail after allegedly slipping and hurting his back, officials at the sheriff's department knew just what to do.
They turned to the new $1.3 million video surveillance system and watched a recording in clear resolution of the inmate celebrating a Super Bowl win during the period in question by jumping up, running around and sliding across a table while wearing a cape, said Porter County Sheriff Dave Reynolds.
The jail's former surveillance system was so outdated that something as important as an inmate fight would come across on the monitors as a blur of orange uniforms that made it tough to tell who was involved, he said.
"It's like having an old TV and it getting worse, worse and worse," Reynolds said.
The new surveillance system was installed with the help of the Porter County Board of Commissioners, who declared an emergency to get the updated equipment in place quicker, said Commissioner President Jeff Good, R-Center.
The system was purchased using local income tax revenue, and payments were spread out over three years to avoid draining the fund, he said.
"It was another big ticket item on a long list of big ticket items that need to be addressed," Good said.
"Security at the jail isn't optional," Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South, said.
Commissioner Jim Biggs, R-North, said these types of surveillance systems are typically replaced every seven or eight years.
The system replaced at the jail was 15 years old and dated to the opening of the facility.
"Having operated that long was short of amazing," Biggs said.
The new system includes 216 cameras monitoring nearly every area within the jail, as well as the exterior of the building, Porter County police Capt. Ryan Taylor said during a tour of the main control room.
The only areas not viewed on camera are the showers and the individual cells in the general population area, said Porter County police Sgt. Jamie Erow.
Control room employees now sit in front of five 32-inch monitors and two control screens to keep an eye on activities in and around the jail, Taylor said. Each of the new monitors allows up to 48 cameras to be viewed at one time, as compared to the single view of the former much-smaller units.
The system is also part of the building's intercom and remote door locking controls, he said. Blinking red signals on a grid revealed doors that were not opened by main control.
The upgrade replaced an analog surveillance system with a digital version, which allows for more storage capacity, Erow said.
Reynolds said the former system had reached a point where it was not always working and had crashed for three days before being replaced.
"Can you imagine having the same phone for 15 years?" Reynolds asked.
Cameras reduce need for guards
The jail was designed to rely on the camera surveillance system as part of an indirect approach to supervision, Reynolds said. This allows the jail to operate with fewer guards than a direct supervision approach and limits jailer contact with inmates.
The improved surveillance system also protects the county from a legal standpoint, Biggs said.
"The liability is so huge operating the jail," he said.
The cost of maintenance at the jail is also huge and is second only to road maintenance for the county, Biggs said.
With the new jail surveillance system in place, Reynolds said he is now focusing on securing nearly $500,000 to purchase body cameras for the department's officers and cameras for their cars.
Reynolds said he intends to approach the County Council June 27 with a proposal that will involve purchasing the equipment over a five-year period with his department contributing seizure money to help cover the cost.