Since closing for a second time 18 months after again losing jailers and its administrator, the jail in Superior will remain closed indefinitely, leaving deputies of the Mineral County Sheriff’s Office to ferry inmates back and forth from counties up to 95 miles away.
At a meeting on the issue in Superior this week, the fourth since the jail closed in January, all agreed that the jail needed to reopen, and stay open. With the county attorney anticipating a visit from the head of a nonprofit who may offer a solution, residents also proposed the idea of hiring new jail staff at higher wages.
“I feel like we’ve got a three-headed snake here. First, is the inmate problem and covering the costs and running the jail, with meals and health care and all that,” said Roman Zylawy, one of three county commissioners.
“And now we’re out of qualified applicants, that’s the second head of the snake. And the third one is now, we do have a possible solution, if we wanted to hire people for more money.”
A loss of three of its jailers led to the initial closure of the jail in October 2017, with 15 inmates transferred to three other counties and three nonviolent offenders released. Community leaders said the jailers left due to mismanagement by the sheriff at the time, and inadequate pay at less than $11 an hour. Less than a month later, then Sheriff Tom Bauer also resigned.
A committee of residents, members of the sheriff’s office and department heads formed soon afterward. Despite a pay increase for jailers and the creation of new administrative position, the facility continued operations for only 10 months after reopening in March 2018. Roni Phillips, also the town’s mayor, resigned as jail administrator after being expected to also work dispatch.
Keeping the jail closed has been a drain on deputies, who have been taxiing those charged in Mineral County to jails in neighboring Sanders, Missoula and Lake counties. According to County Attorney Ellen Donohue, housing inmates 70 miles away in Sanders County alone cost $20,000 in April.
“That’s not including gas and overtime for the deputies,” she said. “On paper, that month on average is cheaper. But in the long run, if we go above 10 or 11 people, that’s costing us money. If we’re still doing this by winter, that’s also going to be very dangerous for our deputies.”
Donahue said the sheriff’s office and justice department of Mineral County face other logistical issues, such as needing to make two separate trips for inmates of different genders. In at least one instance, an inmate was forced to stay in the Mineral County courthouse overnight when no county jail would admit him. A deputy had to monitor him the entire time.
“I worry that people don’t realize the complexity of the problem. We have to deal with it and we need a jail, but if we say, ‘Let’s pay detention officers more,’ there’s a ripple effect,” Donahue said.
Donahue and county commissioners worry that increasing the pay for jailers or the jail administrator will undermine Sheriff Mike Boone and his deputies. She has been in contact with Mike Thatcher, CEO of Community, Counseling, and Correctional Services Inc., to try and solve the county’s dilemma of both a small labor pool and uncertainty as to whether the jail will consistently stay open.
A nonprofit based in Butte, CCCS Inc. has established pre-release programs, addiction treatment centers and work release services in counties throughout southwest Montana. Thatcher will tour the Mineral County Jail next week.
“If you’re going to be a county and have a sheriff’s department, you’ve got to have a jail,” said Superior resident Lance Jasper, an attorney.
Jasper, who also served on the committee that created the jail administrator position, said no matter how the jail is reopened, either by hiring a new administrator or bringing in a company from outside of the county, the commissioners need to make a decision that they’ve had four months to consider.
“Out of everybody who was at the meeting, not one said ‘nay' to reopening the jail,” he said.
“If this county was a business, somebody would have been fired by now.”
Another meeting to discuss Thatcher’s visit will be held May 31.