Friday, July 21, 2006

Sheriff defends need for new jail

Femling says existing facility unsafe for prisoners and jailers


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

An inmate sleeps on a low bunk in a cramped cell at the Blaine County Jail in Hailey.

Prisoners sleep on low bunks, some of them barely a foot away from stainless steel toilets. Conditions are cramped at the Blaine County Jail in Hailey, where many cells look more like kennels than places where you'd keep human beings.

Corridors in the jail are so small that large jailers or prisoners need to turn sideways to squeeze through doorways and need to duck their heads to keep from banging them. In the cramped quarters, even the air has a repressive quality, slightly moist, slightly musty and unable to circulate. Fans are brought in on hot days to try to provide some comfort.

If a prisoner is sick or injured, Wood River Fire and Rescue personnel have trouble squeezing stretchers through the narrow corridors and in and out of some of the cells. Wheeled gurneys have to be left outside because they're too large and unwieldy to be maneuvered through the narrow corridors and around tight corners.

In one cell, a victim strapped to a stretcher would have to be stood upright in order to be removed from the cell.

"We can't get a gurney in there, so what do you do—just drag them out by their feet? That's not medically sound," said a frustrated Sheriff Walt Femling, in the aftermath of a court ruling earlier this month that said Blaine County's plan to build a new jail facility was illegal.

Femling said the jail is neither safe for prisoners or for jailers. While security cameras can monitor some areas, there are blind spots, including blind corners where prisoners have allegedly thrown body wastes or fluids on jailers, including excrement and urine.

Femling called the aging facility, which was built in 1972, antiquated, primitive, even medieval, and said it's an embarrassment to Blaine County, one of the most prosperous counties in the state.

"Would you want to be in there?" Femling asked. "Would you want your teenage kid in there?"

Femling said some people have the attitude that people in jail deserve harsh conditions. But he sees things differently:

"It's my responsibility, that when we have someone in the jail, that they not come out worse off than when they went in. We should be able to give them some help when they're in here. People make mistakes in their lives. Some of these people are our neighbors, and we'll have to live with them once they're out."

There are other problems. The roof leaks. In a small closet-size room that houses communications electronics, orange plastic covers some of the equipment to keep if from getting wet.

The kitchen, a converted jail cell, faces shutdown from the state because of new legislation that requires jail kitchens to be certified by the District Health Department. The kitchen is too small for a dishwasher, one of the state requirements. Old pipes running through the kitchen add to the problems.

"They're going to close me down," Femling said. "This kitchen doesn't meet any standards. We will never get certification for this kitchen."

Femling said he's trying to get "grandfathered in" so the kitchen can stay open, but he's not hopeful his request will be approved. Attempts to line up a caterer have failed because Femling said he can't find one who is willing to provide meals 365 days a year.

Even the office part of the building is crowded. Femling said that when the jail was built, the sheriff's office had a staff of 10. Now the office employs 50 deputies and support staff.

Femling said he has a cabinet full of lawsuits from prisoners and the American Civil Liberties Union that document other complaints and problems.

"I've been trying to keep this place afloat for 16 years," Femling said. "Sometimes, I wonder, 'What's the point,' but that's not the prudent thing."

Femling's plans for a new facility were running smoothly until July 7, when 5th District Court Judge Barry Wood ruled in a long-awaited decision that the funding plan was illegal. Femling and the Blaine County commissioners had hoped to fund a $10 million facility on borrowed money that they'd repay with leftover budget revenue each year.

That plan came about after three bond issues failed in the 1990s.

The plan called for building a new 36,500-square-foot law enforcement center on a five-acre parcel the county purchased in 1996 at the Airport West light-industrial park in Hailey. The new center would include a modern jail facility, offices and facilities for the sheriff's department and would house a new countywide consolidated dispatch center.

So what happens next? "It's back to the drawing board, so I don't know," the sheriff said.

The decision about what direction to take is up to the Blaine County Commission, but Femling said he sees two alternatives.

One, which he doesn't like, is another bond election.

"We tried to do this without raising taxes, but the judge ruled against us. I can't believe it, but he said we needed to run a bond," Femling said.

"We've run a bond three times now. How many times do we have to try to run this down their throats?"

Femling said another option is to build the facility in modular fashion, starting with the office facilities and consolidated dispatch center and trying to add the jail later.

However, discussions with the Hailey Planning and Zoning Department indicate it will be at least six months before they can approve new plans, Femling said.

Frustrated over the latest setback to building a new facility, Femling, a 26-year career law enforcement official who's served the last 19 as Blaine County's sheriff, said he doesn't know if he'll seek re-election in 2008.

"All I want to do is get this thing moving," he said. "Eventually, we will get a new jail. Either a judge will order it, or we'll get closed down."




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