The Mineral County Jail, shuttered for the second time in less than two years in January, will stay closed despite a consensus between residents and county officials that the area needs a detention center.
In an attempt to find a cost-effective solution, county commissioners and the county prosecutor discussed this week the results of a meeting with the head of Community, Counseling and Correctional Services, Inc. CEO Mike Thatcher, who toured the facility built for 28 inmates, made it clear that giving his organization control of 10 of those beds would do little to help alleviate the staffing issues that caused the jail’s closure.
“If I was going to run this as a 12-bed jail, I wouldn’t hire CCCS,” Thatcher said. “It sounds like I’m talking myself out of an opportunity, but I’m just being blunt.”
Based in Butte, CCCS has established pre-release programs, addiction treatment centers and work release services in Montana, North Dakota and Washington.
After discussing other options for Mineral County outside of hiring private companies and charging for housing inmates of other counties, Thatcher said officials could coordinate with the Montana Department of Corrections and offer sanctioned space reserved for probation violators across the state.
Rather than giving up beds for drug treatment and pre-trial housing, programs offered by CCCS, Thatcher said a sanctioned bed would require less staff and provide money from the state.
“I see the potential partnership with the MDOC as the only avenue you’ve got. That’s my opinion,” Thatcher said.
According to Thatcher, jails and prisons across Montana face a dilemma in housing their inmates. During the 2017 legislative session, the state set a cap on jail population at 250 to reduce crowding and combat the strain on its prison and jail system. The state's jail population is at roughly 234.
In a June 2019 report, Montana State Prison reported an operational capacity of 1,568, but an inmate population of 1,634.
“In my 38 years of doing this, I’ve never seen the prison population at 1,450. And it’s been up to 1,630 and 1,650. When I talk to the sheriff in Butte, I can’t even persuade him to put somebody in the Butte jail. They won’t take anybody because they’re so crowded,” said Thatcher.
The jail in Superior first closed in October 2017 when resignations and firings left it with just two jailers to cover a schedule meant for six. The sheriff at the time resigned soon after.
Four months later, the jail reopened on the condition that a jail administrator post be created, along with more jailers hired. Ten months later, the administrator requested the jail close again after two jailers resigned. The wife of one had a job opportunity in Idaho, the other "simply quit."
Because of its location along Interstate 90, Mineral County experiences a high rate of crime. So far, it has cost the county too much to keep the jail open, but it's also pricey to house inmates in detention centers elsewhere.
“Being along Interstate 90, we are hopping. For a county with only 4,200 people, we have crime rates of counties with two and three times our population,” Donahue said.
Since closing, deputies have taxied those charged in Mineral County to jails in Missoula, Sanders and Lake Counties. Jails in the surrounding counties charge a per diem for housing inmates, with Sanders County billing $78 a day and Missoula County billing $108.
“That $78 a day isn’t even touching what it’s actually costing,” said Mineral County Attorney Ellen Donahue. “It’s the overtime we’re paying the officers to drive them. It’s the mileage and the gas.”
She earlier noted the cost for April alone was $20,000, not including overtime and gas.
For the meeting, Thatcher prepared several documents detailing the possible costs of bringing in CCCS workers into the county jail. Nine staff members would start at $14 an hour, a dollar more than the current pay for a Mineral County jailer, along with a supervisor at $18.
County Commissioner Roman Zylawy said the jail needs both more staff and more inmates. Although the jail averaged 12 inmates during its time in operation, it did not attract many “customers” from other counties with jails at capacity — or no jail at all. Zylawy said the potential revenue from holding inmates from neighboring counties could help cover the cost of hiring enough jailers and provide funding for the sheriff’s department.
“We just want to break even,” said Zylawy.
Donahue and county commissioners will meet again to provide an update on the Mineral County Jail reopening July 7.