The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s office is having problems with overcrowding at the county jail.
At times, the jail contains nearly twice as many inmates as it was designed to hold.
A new facility may be the only option to fix the problem.
The Lewis and Clark County Detention Center opened in 1985. It’s designed to house 54 inmates. Yet the average is right around 76. Detention Sergeant Clair Swain says it often gets a lot worse on weekends. She has seen 93 or 94 inmates at one time–the extra inmates sleeping on mattresses on the floors of cells, sometimes in the jail library or even the hallway.
“It makes it dangerous for the officer’s that are working. they’re having to step over inmates to look at everybody,” Swain said.
Jail staff especially notice the crowding when it comes to special needs inmates. These are inmates that might be that’s particularly violent, are mentally ill or are on suicide watch.
Detention officers need to keep these patients separated in a room where they won’t be able to hurt themselves.
Detention Sergeant Scott Ferguson opens the doors to one of these holding cells. It’s small inside, with one light well too high for someone to reach. A camera watches the inmate at all times.
“The bunks are to where you can’t move them or attach anything to them, to help prevent the inmates from hanging themselves,” Ferguson said.
The jail has three of these holding cells as well as one other, slightly different isolation cell. But the holding cells are supposed to be where new inmates wait to get booked.
And what happens when all four of these cells are filled and the jail gets another inmate who needs to be isolated?
“We have to find a way to juggle these people that are already on our booking floor, and find a place to put this very violent inmate,” Swain said.
Lewis and Clark County has started contracting with the jail in Broadwater County to take some extra inmates. But, it’s expensive to transfer inmates like that, so it’s only done on a case by case basis.
Lewis and Clark County Undersheriff David Rau says these overcrowding issues have been going on for the better part of a decade. He says everything is pointing to the need for a new jail.
“You know, times are changing,” Rau said. “We have certain things we have to abide by to keep the inmates safe and to keep us out of liability as a sheriff’s office and county.”
Undersheriff Rau says a criminal justice coordinating council will start meeting in the coming months. The council will be made up of state, county and local law enforcement and other stakeholders—including the public.
The group will try to figure out what can be done to help alleviate the overcrowding problem. Rau says the process will ultimately lead to a decision on whether or not to start pushing for a new County jail.
“We have a lot of information to gather,” Rau said. “We can’t just jump into this we have to look at all the areas.”
Rau says it make take several years to do that.