As far as jail facilities go, the Big Horn County jail doesn’t rank the highest, according to a recent report put out by the American Civil Liberties Union. In fact, the document – entitled “Locked in the Past: Montana’s Jails in Crisis” – ranks the facility last in prisoner satisfaction in four categories: access to natural light, satisfaction with the variety of food, plumbing and mold management. The jail also ranks among the bottom three of county jails polled in 10 of the ACLU survey’s 18 subjects. The question now posed is: What are they going to do about it?
Commissioner Chad Fenner said the county has, for about five years, been discussing alternatives for the present jail – which has 29 beds, often 40 inmates and five staff.
He said the hopes the county can keep the current jail going for a little while longer, but agreed with Commissioner Sidney Fitzpatrick that the timeline would depend on the ACLU. He mentioned an August 2012 incident where the organization demanded that Miles City close their Custer County Jail, citing “uninhabitable conditions.”
“The worst part of it is they built it in a basement, more or less,” Fenner said of the Miles City location.
Miles City acquiesced to the ACLU and after a year of shipping prisoners to other locations, Custer County citizens approved construction of a new jail in September 2013.
Fenner commended Sheriff Robert Simpson for his work cleaning and maintaining the local jail, but said it would someday shut its barred doors for the last time.
When it does, the alternative will almost certainly involve millions of dollars.
“Someday, it’s going to happen. We know that,” Fenner said.
New jail vs. Two Rivers Detention Facility
Warden Ken Keller of the Two Rivers Detention Facility in Hardin said he’s been in talks with the commissioners, and both former Sheriff Lawrence “Pete” Big Hair and new Sheriff Simpson on the possibility of housing county prisoners in his facility.
Since its grand opening in August 2014, the privatly owned facility has acquired 130 detainees out of a 400-prisoner capacity. The facility also graduated its second group of detainees from the Emerald Re-Entry Services Turning Point Program on March 3.
Keller said two outside Montana counties have expressed interest in housing prisoners at the facility, though he wouldn’t specify their names. He said they have been working towards a peer review with the Montana Jail Standards for insurance purposes.
“We know the need is there,” he said. “We’re trying to work it through with them.”
The commissioners, for their part, weren’t receptive to the idea of housing prisoners in Two Rivers. Fenner said that either bringing them to the facility or “farming them out” would be a large expense for county to pay, when compared to building a new detention center.
In February 2014, then Undersheriff Mike Fuss invited representatives from Denver-based Reilly Johnson Architecture and Billings-based Schutz Foss Architects to discuss the possibility of constructing of a new facility. Based on designs neither firm would release for copyright reasons, a 96-bed facility for the county would cost an estimated $10.3 million if attached to the county courthouse or $11.6 million if located in a parking lot south of the courthouse. Both buildings would be accessible to people with disabilities.
“These are not optimistic numbers. These are not low numbers,” Principal Robert Johnson of Reilly Johnson Architecture said at the time. “These are really comfortable numbers.”
At an estimated cost of $70 per inmate per day (assuming each inmate is healthy), housing 35-40 prisoners in the Two Rivers facility would cost between $882,000 per year and $1,022,000 per year.
With 35 inmates, the cost would surpass the $10.3 million for the first facility in 12 years and the $11.6 million for the second facility early into the 13th. With 40 inmates, the cost would surpass the cost of a $10.3 million facility early into its 10th year and $11.6 million about halfway into the 11th.
If the county were to build a jail, none of these numbers take into account the cost of maintaining the building, or feeding and taking care of inmates. According to Fenner, a good facility may last 25-30 years and the current jail has lasted since 1976.
Fenner acknowledged that building a new facility would be a tough sell for county taxpayers, but believed he could convince them towards his way of thinking by showing them the numbers.
“Do you want to spend your tax dollars on prisoners? Nobody does,” he said. “Somebody’s in jail, they did something wrong. Why should I have to pay for that? But that’s the way it goes.
“We can farm them out and it will be all right for a year or two, but you’re paying lots of money.”
Other aspects of the incarceration question
Hardin Mayor Jack Lane said he recently read the ACLU report and found it “one sided,” as it was largely based on inmate interviews without what he considered to be significant input from law enforcement, whom he made a point to commend. Nonetheless, he agreed with commissioners that the jail would eventually need to close.
Unlike the commissioners, however, he believed Emerald Companies, who owns the Two Rivers facility, could play a part in housing detainees. He said county officials, at present, seemed set on a building “designed to their specifications.” For example, he said, county officials aren’t fond of the fact that the Two Rivers facility has skylights but no windows.
“I think it might be possible for them to work out an agreement with Emerald, because they have such a strong program to address addictions, alcohol and drugs,” he said. “I think they could help the county.”
Lane, who formerly worked as a juvenile probation officer, found that many of the people in jail struggle with drug and alcohol problems. A recovery system like Two Rivers’ Turning Point Program, he said, could help more local inmates get over their addictions and – in the long run – possibly save both the county and city money.
“I think it would be worth looking into, seriously,” he said.
Jim Taylor, legal director for the ACLU, said the organization isn’t “actively pursuing litigation against Big Horn County” at present, though they are figuring out which jails to fix through policy and negotiations, and which ones to sue.