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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of January 15 - 21, 2003


County considers building new jail

Sheriff hopes it could be self-sufficient

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 mentioned include:

·  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 federal agencies.

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 "relatively gold-plated."

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."


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