It's a problem that's almost as old as indoor plumbing in jails, but it's becoming a frequent frustration for the Valparaiso utilities maintenance crews.
Maintenance Manager Frank McGinley told Valparaiso's Utilities Board recently his crews had to repair the pumps at the sewage lift station near the Porter County Jail twice in one day.
The pumps get jammed up with clothing, towels and bed linens flushed down the toilets in the cell blocks.
"It's really picked up in the last two years," McGinley said. "We're probably out there twice a week every week."
"They twist it and tie it in knots and just keep feeding it down the toilet," he said.
McGinley said inmates damage pumps, brake shafts and burn up motors, along with causing flooding inside the lift station "can."
"It shorted out the motors and electronics and caused pretty extensive repairs," he said.
The "can" is where the lift station pumps are located. So named because it is like a big, tubular can 20 feet below ground. McGinley said the work area is only about eight feet in diameter at the bottom and is reached through a four-foot-wide access tube.
Two men are required to work together as part of the confined space safety rules, making the already cramped quarters more claustrophobic, and a third person waits outside in case of emergencies.
"The material packs in so tight it is not an easy task," McGinley said. "It's not a real joyful task. You have a wooden dowel rod and hammer, and it is wet and squirts and splatters and you wear it. You can't pull the pump assembly out of the hole. You've got to cut, pry and poke, and it's a battle."
McGinley said it takes up to two hours for an average repair. With equipment and parts, the cost is about $500 each time they are called out unless a major repair is needed.
McGinley said the city has talked to the Porter County Sheriff's Department about possible actions, and Sheriff Dave Lain said the one-story design of the jail was meant to thwart a lot of the problems of inmates flushing things down the toilets.
"It's a universal problem in corrections, and, when we built the new facility, we took steps we thought would be sufficient," Lain said.
These included hooks in the lines to catch the items before they got too far. The department had no indication there was a big problem until a couple of months ago, and Lain said it could be the accumulation of the years of abuse. At least one of the hooks broke off, and they are checking for others as well as looking at other solutions.
They consulted Lake County, where Sheriff John Buncich said the jail addition built 12 years ago had the pins in the plumbing to block things from entering the main channel and a chopper system to chew up the potential drain clogging materials.
"Our problem now is with the older jail section," Buncich said. "We have all the specs ready for an extensive renovation that will prevent things from being flushed down there."
Lain said he is looking into the chopper equipment.
"It only takes money," he said.
"It's a matter of we do the best we can to control behavior, but, when you are talking about these issues, the toilets are out of camera range. We can't monitor them, and we don't have the staff to be in the cell blocks enough to have one-on-one control," Lain said.
Sophia Ansari, press secretary for the Cook County Sheriff's Office, said trash bags used to be a problem until they were eliminated from circulation in the jail, but inmates will try to flush sheets and items from the commissary, including chip bags, milk cartons and soap boxes. She said it is a weekly occurrence that costs several hundred dollars for each repair.