POLSON — Lake County needs a new jail.
That was the verdict of a two-member team from the National Institute of Corrections delivered to a small group of county officials and interested locals Friday morning following its two-day long inspection of the county’s detention center.
Lake County Sheriff Don Bell invited the NIC team to Polson to make an assessment of the facility that’s often too full to accept new prisoners coming either from the court system or from arrests made by his deputies.
Currently, Bell said there are 1,600 people with felony warrants for their arrest that his deputies can’t serve because there is no room in the jail. More than 800 people are currently waiting for an opening to serve their sentences in a jail that can house 46 inmates.
Bell recently offered a man who has been waiting four years to serve his time a chance to do community service as an alternative.
“There are people who are calling in three times a week to see if we have space,” Bell said.
For most of those in the room, the inadequacy of the jail wasn’t at all surprising. They had heard it before.
A similar NIC team came to the same conclusion back in 2007 when it inspected the detention center built in 1932 and housed in the basement of the county courthouse.
The challenge has been and remains finding a way to pay for the new facility.
“I don’t think this is going to go anywhere if we don’t have the funding,” said Lake County Commissioner Dave Stipe.
After the county lost over $1 million in tax revenue following the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ acquisition of Kerr Dam in 2005, Stipe said county residents have seen their property taxes go up between 20 and 60 percent.
At the same time, many people who irrigate farm lands have also had to swallow a $3 per acre jump in fees.
“And you think we’re going to go to those voters and ask them for a tax increase?” Stipe said. “How do you think that’s going to work?”
Bell said when his officers make an arrest and the jail is full, they are required to call him to ask for permission to bring in a new prisoner.
“I have to weigh the liability we face when we’re already at 46 prisoners,” he said. “It usually has to be a violent offender to go over that number.”
As a result, people who should be locked up often aren’t.
The county’s chief juvenile probation officer, Barbara Monaco, saw that challenge for law enforcement recently when she sent deputies to arrest a juvenile on “pretty serious” charges. When the officers arrived at the home, they found three other people there who had felony warrants for their arrest.
Because the jail was full, they were released. The juvenile was transported to the Missoula juvenile detention center.
“These officers are trying to protect the community to the best of their ability,” Monaco said. “The general public isn’t seeing that risk that’s occurring here on a day-to-day basis.”
When there is enough space, the conditions inside the detention center are far less than ideal.
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For instance, since the jail has only four single cells, detention officers have to decide who is the most dangerous or who needs the most protection from other inmates who are housed in larger dormitory settings.
That is one of many problems that NIC consultants Mark Martin and Mark Goldman pointed out in the report they offered the community Friday.
The current jail poses safety issues to both the inmates and detention officers, Martin said. Its design makes it challenging for detention officers to continually watch inmates. There are metal bars and other protrusions that can be used for suicide attempts. Manual locks on the cell would be problematic during a fire or other emergency. Low ceilings allow inmates access to plumbing, wiring and cameras.
And the list goes on.
“We believe that you’re doing the best that you can with the resources that you have available,” Goldman said. “Even the inmates told us that. But there are enormous problems with this facility.”
The challenges facing Lake County’s justice system don’t end at the detention center.
Lake County District Judge Kim Christopher said while the jail is the most critical issue, the county’s entire justice system is dealing with space limitations that can create other issues for public safety.
When the county took on a second district judge in 1997, it was supposed to build a new courtroom and office space, but it didn’t happen, Christopher said. In 2013, the commission received a court order requiring them to do so, but, again, it didn’t happen.
“The jail is definitely the place where I think the public has the greatest concern because it incarcerates people who are a threat to the community, but we have failed miserably with regard to what’s been accomplished with the entire justice system,” she said. “The last real renovation of this building was in 1975, which is 40 years ago. We are in a significantly different place than that.”
Due to space constraints, Christopher has been forced to hold court in the commissioners’ meeting room, where she’s been pulled off the bench four times due to dangerous situations that involved people with guns.
“Limited space is not limited to just the jail,” she said.
Commissioner Bill Barron, a former sheriff, said the last assessment that pointed out the jail deficiencies did make a difference for the community. The county was able to pass a levy that allowed it to hire additional detention officers and make some improvements to the detention center.
The county has made improvements as it can afford them, Barron said.
As an example, Barron pointed to a concrete slab in front of the jail entrance that allowed officers to pull their vehicles closer to building. While many detention centers have a separate, enclosed entrance called a sally port, Barron said that slab was what the county could afford.
“We address things on the level that we can,” he said.
Prisoners are currently escorted in through an area that is open to the public, which was another concern the consultants pointed out.
Stipe said the county’s justice system was a four-horse wagon. The county shares jurisdiction with state of Montana, federal government and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
“Right now, we only have one horse pulling this wagon,” Stipe said. “We’re not getting any cooperation from the other three horses. … The county is paying the bills. The others with co-jurisdiction don’t pay.”
At times, Stipe said the jail is half full with prisoners waiting to be transferred over to the state.
“All of it puts us in an impossible position,” he said.