County considers building new jail
Sheriff hopes it could be self-sufficient
By GREG MOORE
Express Staff Writer
The Blaine County Commissioners on Monday
authorized Sheriff Walt Femling to undertake a study on a proposed new jail.
The current jail has been considered overcrowded
and archaic for at least a decade. However, county voters have balked at funding
a new one in three revenue bond elections. In 1995, the county came within 18
votes of obtaining the necessary two-thirds majority to approve a $6.9 million
jail bond issue.
This time, Femling said, he hopes to build an
approximately 75-bed facility that could be self-sufficient.
"I do not want to raise property taxes for this,"
he told the commissioners.
The 28-bed county jail houses defendants awaiting
trial and people sentenced to jail time for crimes not serious enough to warrant
incarceration in the state penitentiary. A 20-bed annex in the old Power
Engineers building on Airport Way houses minimum-security inmates let out during
the day on work release.
Inadequacies in the current jail were brought to
light in the 1980s by two lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Femling said that since then, continuing population growth and a deteriorating
building have made the need for a new facility even more acute. Problems he
· The difficulty jailers have monitoring inmates
in the labyrinthine layout of the current jail. A modern facility would permit
jailers to see all the cells from a central point.
· The lack of privacy of inmates when using the
toilets, which are simply stuck in the corner of cells holding several people.
· The absence of space for female inmates. Since
males and females must be housed separately, just one female inmate can take up
an entire cell meant for several people.
· The need to send inmates to other counties when
the jail is full. That cost $10,000 last year, not counting the hours spent by
sheriff’s deputies in transporting inmates.
· The lack of space for programs such as
Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
"These are like dog kennels that we keep people
in," Femling said. "And our building is falling apart. We’re going to keep
throwing money at an inadequate facility."
He said a new jail would also be more secure.
In an interview, Magistrate Judge Robert Elgee said
that when he believes a criminal deserves jail time, he sentences him or her to
jail, but that he has to consider the cost of sending inmates out of the county
when making sentencing decisions in borderline cases.
Femling said he will review studies done in the
early 1990s, carried out by consultants, to determine which conclusions remain
valid, and project likely inmate populations for the next 20 years.
He said a new facility could be just a jail or
could include a new sheriff’s office and a consolidated dispatch center. Another
option, he said, is to simply add on to the existing jail. He said that since
deputies’ duties overlap, it would be cheaper in the long run to have both the
jail and the sheriff’s office in the same building.
Femling said he will determine the pros and cons of
each option and estimate the associated costs. He said the first phase of his
study should take about three months.
The county owns a 4.3-acre parcel in the Airport
West subdivision that it bought specifically for a jail site. Femling said a
second phase of his study would include site selection.
"We’ll supply you with the most accurate data we
can and then get the public involved," he said.
Femling said part of his study will be to determine
whether a new jail could pay for itself. He said a larger facility could
generate revenue by housing inmates from other counties, the state and the
Immigration and Naturalization Service. He said the jail already earns $200,000
a year housing inmates on INS holds.
Dennis Dexter, administrator of the Mini-Cassia
Criminal Justice Center, said the 170-bed facility earns about $1 million a year
housing inmates from the state Department of Corrections, 11 counties and three
Teresa Jones, public information officer with the
Department of Corrections, said that if current trends hold, the department will
have a 1,900-bed deficiency in its penitentiary system by 2005. However, she
said, the department is taking steps to reduce the growth of its inmate
population and to expand its capacity.
Commissioner Dennis Wright suggested to Femling
that in planning a proposed new jail, he try to determine why the three bond
issues had failed. He said he thought the proposed facilities had been
Femling said he intended to take a more
"common-sense approach" this time.
"We relied on consultants before," he said. "We’re
relying on ourselves now."