Friday, February 15, 2008

New jail to offer education, religious services

County public safety facility is on schedule and on budget

Express Staff Writer

Standing in one of the main housing pods in the county?s new jail in Hailey, Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling explains some of the design characteristics that have gone into the new facility. Photo by David N. Seelig

Inmates incarcerated at the new Blaine County jail will be able to advance their education in the facility's special program area, something the county is unable to provide in its existing downtown Hailey location.

A large room next to the facility's inmate housing wing will also be open for activities like religious services and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling said during a media tour of the facility Wednesday.

Femling said studies have shown that inmates who are able to pursue their GEDs or take part in other educational programs are less likely to be repeat offenders once they've served their sentences.

"There's a direct link between ... lack of education and criminal activity," he said.

Femling said that due to a lack of facilities, the county hasn't provided educational programs for five years.

Pointing to a study of Idaho's correctional system, Femling said one in 35 men in the state are either incarcerated or on probation.

"We can't keep just locking people up," he said. "We need to do some kind of turning around here."

Femling said other programs the county sheriff's office has been able to provide have taken place in the jail's drunk tank. Whenever the room is needed for an intoxicated individual it becomes off-limits to inmate programs, he said.

"It's a hit and miss," he said.

Viewed during Wednesday's tour, the new Blaine County public safety facility looked to be well on its way to being complete this summer. Femling said construction crews working on the building anticipate being done by July.

Bob Wheeler, project superintendent for Boise-based Kreizenbeck Constructors, said the success of the project has to do with the excellent crew working hard to bring it in on time.

"I've got some guys working 12-hour days just to get it done," Wheeler said.

From the outside, the maroon and gray masonry building appeared nearly done, except for its tall, west-facing main entrance, which will be a combination of metal framing and large amounts of glass.

The new public safety facility is in the Airport West light-industrial park in Hailey. Femling said the building's attractive front façade will make the facility a good neighbor to other businesses in the light-industrial park. He said many passersby will likely not even realize the building is the county jail.

Once complete, the facility will have 64 beds for regular inmates and 20 beds for inmates in the county's work-release program. It will also house the county sheriff's office and a new consolidated dispatch center. The county's existing jail on First Avenue in Hailey has only 26 beds.

Femling said that as soon as the facility is complete, the sheriff's office will begin the complex process of transferring all operations. He said that will take as long as a month.

During the walk through the public safety facility, Femling showed off a number of other features built into the building.

On its south side will be the county's new consolidated dispatch center. Here, dispatchers taking emergency calls will work in a large room protected from intruders by a bank of bulletproof windows.

Femling said the expensive windows are designed to protect against an incident such as one that recently took place in northern Idaho. There, a sharpshooter tried unsuccessfully to gun down dispatchers through the center's windows.

Femling said that simply not having windows in the consolidated dispatch center isn't a good idea due to the long hours dispatchers work.

He said the facility's hallways also have natural lighting.

"There's going to be a lot of natural light," he said.

Femling pointed to a number of efficient design characteristics built into the jail's kitchen. One of those is the delivery door to the kitchen where workers in the main control room of the facility will be able to lock doors automatically so delivery drivers can drop loads off on their own if staff from the jail are busy elsewhere and are unable to help.

The new kitchen will also have its own walk-in freezer and cold storage.

Nearby in a separate portion of the jail is a secure medical facility where inmates will be able to receive medical or dental care. Now, inmates are transported elsewhere to receive dental care.

Femling said trips outside the walls of a jail increase the chance of an inmate's escaping.

The facility will have between 70 and 80 cameras watching all sections of the building. All images from the cameras will be viewable from the jail's ultra-secure central command area, which is elevated above its housing wing. Workers in the command area will have direct line-of-sight views into all areas of the housing area's four main pods.

In there, prisoners will be placed in either the minimum-security, general-inmate or female housing pods.

Further increasing the security of the housing wing will be an all-new, remote video-conferencing system. The system will allow attorneys or friends and family to speak face-to-face by video to inmates, who will simply sit at a console inside the housing wing.

Femling described the old system of having actual face-to-face meetings between inmates and visitors as "extremely staff intensive."

He said the system will also be fairer to inmates' relatives who work during business hours. He said that with the new video conferencing, the jail will be able to offer longer visitation hours.

Femling said he's most happy with how efficiently the building was designed. He said the design will reduce the number of staff required to run the facility compared to the existing county jail, thereby saving county taxpayer money.

"I think we've put together a real efficient design," he said.

Femling said the construction project is coming in on budget.

He said the jail portion of the structure has the capability of future expansion.

Construction on the new facility was set in motion last year on Feb. 6 when county voters approved a $10.46 million bond to help pay for the new center. Voters had rejected similar measures in 1990, 1995 and 1996.

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