CROWN POINT | The race for sheriff goes through the Lake County Jail.
Sheriff John Buncich said the voters should re-elect him for having brought it from deplorable conditions to a model of health care for inmates. His two opponents say the sheriff has turned it into a money pit that still doesn't meet all federal standards.
Buncich, Richard Ligon and Lake County police Sgt. Oscar Martinez are debating how well the 1,050-bed lockup has been administered since 2009 when the Justice Department's civil rights division declared it deficient in terms of 99 federal standards.
Buncich successfully campaigned for sheriff in 2010 on a promise to end its mismanagement. Four years later, he said his administration has achieved dramatic progress, as noted by federal monitors who last visited the jail in December.
It has reached sustained compliance for 27 areas of concern including: screening new inmates for mental health problems, monitoring the suicidal, improving fire safety, pest control, food service, medical care, sanitation and reducing incidents of unnecessary use of force on inmates.
Monitors will return this spring to review the remaining 72 areas, which are now in partial or substantial compliance.
County officials have spent more than $8 million in the last two years and a projected $5.5 million in 2014 to achieve that. That money is in addition to the jail's regular annual budget of $15 million, $5 million in jail infrastructure improvements and $7 million to settle previous inmate lawsuits over poor jail conditions.
But his challengers, Ligon and Martinez, said the sheriff has quietly replaced Willie Stewart Jr., the jail's administrator and warden, with Mark Purevich, a civilian consultant, as a sign the sheriff still hasn't solved the jail's problems.
"The real issue in terms of taxpayer money and the jail is why have we gone through three wardens?" Martinez said. "You now have one who has zero experience in jail administration."
Ligon said, "The sheriff was supposed to hire a qualified professional correctional administrator, which means warden. He put other people in there who were not qualified."
Buncich said Ligon and Martinez "have no working knowledge of a jail."
The sheriff's first warden, Jeffery Kumorek, served from January 2011 until his resignation in April 2012 after being suspended for allegedly driving intoxicated.
Willie Stewart, a veteran former county policeman, took over and served until Buncich recently reassigned Stewart to revamp the sheriff's work-release program.
The sheriff named Purevich the new jail administrator last June. He said federal overseers approved Purevich om a move suggested by Deputy U.S. Attorney William Maddox, of the Justice Department. Maddox worked with Purevich, who has a certificate from the National Institute of Corrections.
The sheriff hired Purevich as a jail compliance consultant in early 2011. He is being paid $85,000 this year, not only to ensure the jail comes into compliance with federal standards, but also to manage the county police computer records system.
Purevich also is a consultant for county officials on a $2.9 million energy efficiency program, served as fiduciary manager for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force, was in business development for Chester Inc. from 2000 to 2005 and was vice president of sales for Cenifax Net Solutions. Cenifax provides information technology services for most county officials.
Purevich also has served on the Schererville Board of Zoning Appeals, police commission, park board and plan commission. He ran as a Democrat for Schererville town council and St. John Township assessor.
Ligon said the sheriff is missing the opportunity to shift much of the financial burden of the jail off local taxpayers and onto the the federal government through the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.
Buncich said the new law has little use for Indiana jails. Some states are enrolling inmates awaiting trial under an expanded Medicaid program for young, childless adults, but Indiana's Gov. Mike Pence has foreclosed that possibility by refusing to join the Obamacare Medicaid expansion.