For the first time since it opened, the Missoula County jail has been consistently full for months, and tensions inside are running high, according to detention center staff.
The jail on Mullan Road has been operating since 1999, and it accommodates roughly 224 adult inmates from the local courts. Detention manager Mark Harris said the facility is considered full when capacity hits 80 percent.
“The last 10 months, we’ve been at capacity every day,” Harris said. “Before that, we occasionally got there, but not for a long period at a time.”
In the past, most of the inmates had committed serious crimes, but the population makeup has changed, too, detention officials said. Now, the bulk of the cells are filled with people who have committed minor offenses.
Detention facility staff members attribute the increase to a couple of factors. One is the leadership change that took place in Missoula Municipal Court nearly a year ago, when longtime Judge Donald Louden retired and Judge Kathleen Jenks was appointed to the bench; the other is the increase in people who appear to be mentally ill and are committing crimes.
Louden, nicknamed “let ’em loose Louden,” had a reputation for letting people off the hook on sentences, but Judge Jenks has a different approach. While some of her policies are adding stress to the jail, some also are getting offenders’ attention.
“We had a transient person that we would get time after time after time after time after time,” Harris said. “He just spent the summer in jail, and he told us that his intention was to leave town. And he’s not been back.”
Inside the jail last Thursday, a couple of detention officers stood in a control unit overseeing inmates in one wing.
Over the intercom from his cell, an unstable inmate accused his neighbor of leading the Montana militia and killing someone’s mother. An officer in the control room responded, and around the same time, he got word another female inmate was headed to the jail. He wasn’t sure where to make room for her.
Chief detention officer Mark Foss said the inmates are separated based on gender and other factors such as their security risk and even special needs. These days, he said, a glut of people who have committed lesser crimes are clogging the system, and the jail has had to reallocate space based on the population increase.
“Spring, we opened up another max unit, and we haven’t been able to close that back down since,” Foss said of a maximum security unit, which houses people in individual cells. “We have an overflow of female inmates. Both our female pods have been full, so we have to house some of them in the max unit.”
In the control room, the officers face an intercom board with buttons that reach occupied cells, and the names of the inmates are written next to the buttons. Some include one- or two-word descriptions scribbled along with the names, and many of them last week said “suicidal” or “mental health.”
The population increase has led to a corresponding increase in tension inside the jail walls, and to cut down on stress and burnout, a sergeant is working on a new schedule to rotate detention officers through the maximum security area more quickly. But the prisoners keep coming.
“To tell you the truth, if we can get 14 people released today, they’re going to book 18 or 19 back in,” Foss said. “It just seems like every day, we get people out of here, and every day, they bring more in. It’s crazy.”
In the past, just 5 percent of the people Judge Louden sentenced in Municipal Court did jail time, said Peggy Turner, an administrative assistant in the detention center. She said the bulk of them – 75 percent to 80 percent – served their sentences through the work program instead, but Judge Jenks isn’t using that program.
“She’s starting to throw everybody in jail instead of letting them do the work program,” said Turner, who schedules people in the program.
The program allows people to work off their sentences; one day of work equals two days in jail. People do maintenance at the facility, they work at the fairgrounds, and many request hours at the animal shelter.
“It gives them a chance to do something constructive rather than waste their time in jail,” Harris said.
It costs less, too, Turner said: The work program costs $35 a day, and jail costs $100 a day. She used to have six or eight people working every day, and the schedule would be full two and a half months in advance. Now, she said, she doesn’t have enough people to work, and she’s only scheduled a week or week and a half out.
Defense attorney Craig Shannon said he doesn’t want to see that program go by the wayside. For one thing, it allows people to put positive energy back into the city, he said.
“If that’s really happening, a lot of people are sitting in cages that don’t need to be sitting in cages,” said Shannon. “They should be out helping the community. It benefits everybody. It benefits them, it benefits the community, and it serves as a consequence all at the same time. It satisfies many of the policies of our criminal justice system.”
While the full jail is a stressor, Turner said she gives credit to Jenks for trying to change things, too. Turner’s car insurance is constantly going up, and her agent told her it’s because Montana is the worst state for DUIs and driving without a license – and Jenks is holding those perpetrators accountable.
“I understand where Judge Jenks is coming from,” Turner said. “People used to talk about Louden not doing anything, and they wanted someone in there where they would do something. I say hooray for her, you know. It’s just, where do you draw that boundary?”
It’s not a definite line in the sand. Jenks said she isn’t opposed to the work program, but for a while, she had to stop using it because the schedule was so backed up.
“People couldn’t get into it during the period of their sentence, so I stopped using it because they couldn’t get people in,” Jenks said.
A week or two ago, she got word the program had room, and she said it’s an option she’ll consider in the future on a case-by-case basis. A third offense for shoplifting has a mandatory 30 days in jail, she said, and she could see sentencing someone convicted of that crime to the work program because the sentence is so long.
“I’ll probably start using it again. We just have to find some kind of happy medium,” Jenks said.
The jail also is full because an understanding between former Sheriff Mike McMeekin and Judge Louden has gone by the wayside.
In the past, McMeekin and Louden agreed that if the jail got too full, shift supervisors had the authority to let people out early as needed. (The early releases were a point of contention when another Municipal Court judge learned the jail was releasing inmates without the court’s permission.)
Under Sheriff Carl Ibsen and Judge Jenks, prisoners are serving out their full sentences as a general rule, and jail supervisors are not making decisions on releasing inmates. Instead, if the jail is full, Jenks said she will take a second look at cases, and she as judge will decide if and when to let people go early.
“My policy is that the sentences are our sentences, and they are an order, and I’m certainly open to reviewing and trying to alleviate problems, but it’s a judicial decision to release somebody early,” Jenks said.
The policy is clearcut, Ibsen said: “It takes away all the questions. It takes away all the doubt. It makes life simple, or as simple as it can be in that realm.”
While the jail population has jumped because of recent changes in Municipal Court, another problem has been percolating much longer, according to manager Harris. He and Foss have both worked at the facility nearly 30 years, and they have seen more and more mentally ill people in jail the last three or four years.
“I don’t think I’ve seen more mentally ill people in jail than I have now,” Harris said.
“It’s getting worse every year,” Foss said.
Turner makes another observation on the population uptick as well: “I see a lot more DUIs coming in than we used to have. A lot more DUIs. They’re really cracking down on that.”
The detention center should be an adequate size to serve Missoula County for at least another couple of decades, according to Sheriff Ibsen.
He’s been talking with detention staff about solutions to the current overcrowding, and in an ideal world, the sheriff’s plea to potential criminals would fall on receptive ears: “The finest, most permanent solution is (if) the people who are prone to acting in a way that makes them our residents will stop it.”
He’s talking with supervisors in the jail about the work program and eventually will discuss the matter with Municipal Court: “I would like to see more people in the work program, but that’s not particularly our decision. That’s the court’s.”
People with mental illness need to transition more quickly to facilities that can help them, too, and Ibsen said one solution is for Missoula to open up its own inpatient treatment program. But that would cost a lot of money.
“It would be an expensive facility, and I don’t know if it could be something the taxpayers could support,” Ibsen said.
Another idea in its infancy is having some type of dorm where people who are working and aren’t in danger of fleeing or being violent spend their nights instead of jail, he said. They can support their families with their jobs during the day, and at night, they check into the dorm to serve their sentence and learn their lesson.
Ideally, another fix may happen all on its own, but Ibsen couldn’t predict how long it might take. In the short term, he said, the increase in inmates may spike, but once people recognize crimes come with punishments, incarceration may decrease.
“My hope and my belief is that down the road, things will improve,” Ibsen said.