Amid a COVID-19 outbreak at the Yellowstone County Detention Center, jail officials say the state is letting its own inmates languish in the Billings facility, creating a backlog and exacerbating crowding.
The state resumed transports of its inmates roughly three weeks ago but this week decided to suspend them again, citing virus activity in the county.
The Yellowstone County jail, which is the largest in the state, has four women and 30 men in quarantine after testing positive for the new coronavirus. Some contracted it inside the jail, while others are believed to have been booked in while infected.
Separately, in Great Falls, Cascade County Detention Center officials have reported having at least 53 inmates and two jail staff members test positive for the coronavirus.
Yellowstone Sheriff's Capt. Roger Bodine, the jail commander, said the Billings facility averaged 30 to 40 Department of Corrections inmates at a time before the pandemic hit.
The inmates, also referred to as “DOC holds,” are inmates in state custody, often awaiting transport to a prison or treatment center. The state resumed limited transports of inmates early during the pandemic, but Bodine said none had happened in Yellowstone County since mid-March.
“They were just sitting here, piled up, piled up, piled up,” Bodine said. “And we ended up getting over 120 inmates that needed to leave here.”
One state inmate has been waiting at the jail since January, he said.
The Yellowstone County jail is now down to approximately 80 state inmates, out of a total inmate population of 495. The facility was built for 434.
In other words, without the state’s inmates, the jail would be below capacity.
But the state suspended transports again in Yellowstone County, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Carolynn Bright said in an email. She said the decision was made this week due to increased COVID-19 numbers in the county.
Yellowstone County on Monday had 781 active cases, or half of the statewide total.
“The DOC will closely monitor the situation and resume transports out of the facility as soon as clinically recommended,” Bright wrote. “A determination to resume movement will be triggered by a significant reduction in active virus cases and based on guidance provided by the DOC’s public health partners.”
The department said suspending transports has helped keep the virus in check.
“The department realizes the strain this decision placed on its community partners and their staff members and is extremely appreciative of their cooperation; but the department also strongly believes this decision has played a significant role in limiting the spread of COVID-19 within Montana’s prisons and jails,” Bright said, in an emailed statement.
Sheriffs in the state have long complained about DOC holds, citing both cost and crowding. In Yellowstone County, the jail spends $96 per day to hold a person. The state pays a flat reimbursement rate of $69.63 per inmate, per day.
In June, the Montana Supreme Court ruled against a Cascade County judge in a dispute over state inmates held in that county’s crowded jail.
“Considering the number of inmates statewide who may be subject to a transfer order at any given time and the protocols in place to minimize the threat of COVID-19 within the correctional system, this Court declines to dictate the speed at which such transports must occur in a particular case,” the 5-0 order read.
On Monday morning, jail officials held a meeting to brief judges in the 13th Judicial District Court, as well as officials from Probation and Parole, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Supreme Court Administrator’s Office and the Department of Corrections on the current outbreak at the jail.
The Yellowstone County jail population dipped significantly, into the high 300s, at the start of the pandemic. The Montana Supreme Court issued an order in April requiring judges to review their dockets and release, without bond, as many inmates as possible in order to ease pressure on jails and prisons in the state.
But District Judge Colette Davies said those non-violent offenders who could be released already had been.
“Those folks have long been let out,” the judge said.
Davies added that she had seen an increase in recent domestic violence cases in her court and noted that most charges related to domestic violence require arrest.
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