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County jail remains over capacity

| January 10, 2006 11:00 PM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

Nearly a year after expansion plans were scrapped due to higher than expected costs, Lincoln County's jail remains consistently at or over capacity with no fix in sight.

Designed for 26 inmates, the jail held 28 as of Monday. That's about as low as it's been for a while, said Sheriff Daryl Anderson. The population has been peaking at 31 or 32 inmates this winter, down from spikes of 40 or more over the summer, he said.

Those numbers make it hard to segregate inmates with communicable diseases and to adequately house female prisoners, Anderson said. Space intended for two women has as many as six to eight at a time, he said.

In 2004, a specially appointed task force working with an architectural firm drew up plans for a remodel and expansion of the existing jail — located in the courthouse basement — after deciding a new facility would be too expensive. The project was planned to increase the capacity by up to 15 additional inmates while allowing inmates to be better segregated and improving security and safety for staff. Original estimates had put the cost at around $600,000.

"It was looking good," Anderson said. "Then when the bids came in there wasn't a one of them that was under a million."

The county hired a construction manager for the project in an attempt to bring down costs by modifying various non-essential specifications. That plan was abandoned last February after the task force determined that the maximum targeted price tag of $850,000 couldn't be reached without cutting too deeply into the project.

The task force is planning to take a tour of a recently built jail in Broadwater County that could serve as a model for a new facility locally, said Lincoln County Commissioner Rita Windom. The tour hasn't been scheduled yet; the task force is waiting on completion of a remodel of the county's dispatch center, which adjoins the jail and was originally part of the larger project, Windom said.

Funding for a new jail remains in question. The county has been promised a $500,000 grant from the Treasure State Endowment Program, which could be used as matching funds for a larger grant, Windom said.

"But grant money for jails is hard to find and almost non-existent," she said.

Another possibility would be to take out a loan with payments to be made from metal mines license fees from the proposed Montanore mine south of Libby — if that mine becomes a reality, Windom said.

"I don't want to move ahead until we know for sure that's going to happen," she said.

A bond issue has been discussed, but the likelihood of passage is expected to be low. Anderson acknowledged that the best reason for putting a bond issue on the ballot might be to provide a safeguard against potential lawsuits over the jail. At least a defeated bond issue would show that the county made an effort to correct the problem, he said.

In the meantime, local law enforcement and judicial officials are coping with the situation as best they can.

"We do our best to keep the lines of communication with the jail and with the sheriff's department," said Justice of the Peace Gary Hicks.

Typically, inmates nearing the end of their sentence might get a chance for early release if they have exhibited good behavior and the space is needed for new prisoners coming into the system, Hicks said.

"I haven't run into a situation yet where they said 'I won't take your prisoner,'" he said. "They put extra people on and do whatever they need to do."

On some occasions, local prisoners are sent to Sanders County's jail when space is available there, Anderson said. With the influx of new residents to northwestern Montana, that's the only jail in the region that ever seems to have space available, he said.

"Flathead County, all they do is house felons," Anderson said. "Misdemeanors are kicked loose."

It hasn't gotten to that point locally, Hicks said. While he will often suspend or defer short jail terms of just a few days, mainly because he has doubts about their effectiveness, he said he still has the flexibility to impose a sentence measured in months when he thinks it's needed.

"If I'm going to put somebody in jail, I'm going to put them in for a stay, or for a darned good reason," he said.