SUPERIOR — The only jail in Mineral County is closed for business.
The last prisoner will be shipped out Wednesday as county leaders wrestle with a sudden dearth of jailers to watch over the jailed.
Detention officer pay that starts at just over $10 an hour and management issues under Sheriff Tom Bauer have been cited as reasons for a recent spate of resignations. It’s left the county with just two officers to oversee the jail 24 hours a day. That's four short of a full staff.
“We’ve had a lot of jailers quit the last few months, but we hit the critical point having three leave around the same time,” said Roman Zylawy, who chairs the Mineral County commission. “One was let go by the sheriff for not meeting probationary expectations and the other two quit last week.”
The gravity of the situation became apparent at a regularly scheduled commissioner meeting on Friday. County attorney Ellen Donohue said she had asked that the matter be placed on the agenda even before the third jailer resigned in mid-shift the day before.
“We’re down to two and we can’t keep it running with two. It’s unsafe for the inmates and unsafe for the employees, so we brought it up to the commissioners and they agreed to shut it down,” Donohue said Tuesday. “It’s a crisis right now.”
The jail held 15 prisoners at the time commissioners Zylawy, Laurie Johnston and Duane Simons pulled the plug. Seven had been placed there by the state Department of Corrections, which pays the sheriff’s office $62.50 per day for each. They’ve been turned back over to the state to relocate. Donohue said four of them were women who were transported from the Superior jail on Tuesday.
Of the remaining eight inmates, three have been released on their own recognizance after promising in writing to appear for all upcoming court appearances. Two of them, a man and woman, were arrested together on felony drug charges. The third was jailed after being charged with his fourth DUI, a felony. Donohue said none of the three pose a threat to the community, and Bauer emphasized that the closing of the jail "doesn't jeopardize public safety one bit."
Other inmates were moved to Missoula County, where they face separate charges, to Flathead County, and to Sanders County.
Neither Donohue nor Bauer regards the closure as permanent, though the staffing solution is elusive.
“I don’t see it as permanent, but I just don’t know how we’re going to resolve it right now,” Donohue said. “We’ve got to brainstorm and come up with something.”
“It all boils down to money,” said Bauer. “Guys and gals come here and they work for us and realize what the pay is after they take a job if they don’t know it already. It’s been a revolving door, and it’s been like that since I was a deputy here in the '90s.”
Mineral County’s cash-poor condition was underlined in 2016 when 16 detention officers, emergency dispatchers and sheriff’s deputies staged a Memorial Day strike over salary, overtime and longevity issues.
But low pay was less a factor than working conditions for Mick Casper, the most recent jailer to walk off the job.
He told commissioners at the Friday meeting, which was videotaped and made available online at youtube.com/watch?v=QzSO_H8BI2U, that he left in part to bring attention to working conditions under Bauer.
“This can be my exit interview, and it can be very public. That’s one of the reasons I’m here,” Casper told commissioners. “This is about what’s best for the county. It has to be addressed, has to be taken care of.”
Bauer, Undersheriff Mike Boone and Sgt. A.J. Allard “are kind of making things up as they go,” said Shawn Fontaine, business agent for Teamsters Local 2 who represents the sheriff’s office staff.
Among the complaints, he said, is a change that calls for male detention officers to cover for female dispatchers at times.
“When they have a female inmate who is brought into the jail, they want to have a female dress her down, which is understandable because it’s a safety issue,” Fontaine said. “But they’re asking the dispatch people, the women who run the 911 center, to come in and do this job in detention that they haven’t been trained for, while the detention officers are asked to cover 911 calls.”
It’s an example of a policy change that’s been implemented “but not written down anywhere," Fontaine said.
Casper said the jailers have been instructed not to wear their badges because they could be used as a weapon by inmates. Similarly, they shouldn’t carry pens, even though the pod, or common area, is “full of pencils.”
“What’s the difference between a pen and a pencil?” he wondered.
“We were also told to wear our street clothes to work and change there because we didn’t want to be considered a police force,” Casper said. “But there’s no locker room, no place for us to change.”
Bauer wasn’t at Friday’s meeting. He said Tuesday he was caught by surprise by some of the complaints.
“Had they come to me and made known to everyone about some what I consider minor issues, I would have worked with them or talked to them about it,” he said. “I didn’t want them wearing a badge inside a jail for their own safety. My concern was an inmate getting that badge and using it as a weapon. I have a sewn-on badge underneath my shirt for that very reason.”
Asked if the new policies were written down, Bauer replied, “We hadn’t got to that yet. We had a meeting on it, we had a roster made up. The detention officers that were at that meeting signed off on it saying they were there, they understood it. I hadn’t had a chance to put it in policy yet, but that is going to happen because, like I said, it’s for their own good.”
Recruiting ads for jailers have been posted for months, with no replies. Commissioners at Friday's meeting briefly discussed the idea of running a public safety levy, though such attempts have failed in the past.
Zylawy spoke with Bauer on Monday.
“He thinks that better communication between himself and the jailers could have prevented some of their issues,” the commissioner said. “It is my hope that the shutdown of the jail is only temporary and that we can work with the sheriff to remedy the problems that have been causing the forced closure.
“All things have the element of ‘cause and effect,’ so we’ll have to see exactly what those aspects are and start addressing them.”