Jail ‘beyond crisis state’

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With detention officers at the Libby Jail working nearly double the hours of a full-time job in an overcrowded facility, the Sheriff’s Department is looking at every possible path, but there are few easy solutions.

Sheriff Roby Bowe and Undersheriff Brandon Huff met with the county commissioners on Wednesday to discuss their concerns with the overcrowded jail, overworked detention officers and potential future plans.

Their plan is to hire, at mimumum, three new full-time officers.

Huff said that in 2010 the average inmate per detention officer in Montana was one per 4. A fully staffed jail, Huff said, is at minimum about one per 12.

For the past month, the Libby jail average is one detention officer per 35 inmates, Huff said.

Each officer worked 276 hours in January. To compare, an average full time position ranges from 130 to 170 hours per month.

According to the county’s human resource and payroll coordinator Dallas Wamsley, hiring one detention officer would cost $61,000 for a fiscal year, and the cost of overtime from detention officers in the 2015/2016 fiscal year was $17,000.

Right now, their staffing level is eight, which theoretically means there’s two detention officers per shift, but that doesn’t count for vacation, sick days, holidays or waiting on people at the hospital, Huff said.

“They’re just getting worked to death, they really are,” Bowe said.

This creates other issues on top of expensive overtime and overworked officers.

The biggest issue right now, Bowe said, is the tension created between the inmates themselves.

According to Bowe, there’s a lot of inmates that have been sitting in the jail for a long time. Fights are breaking out, but there’s no where to put anyone.

“We have one observation/segregation cell, so that means we can only take one person that’s a threat to themselves, other inmates or is highly intoxicated ... we have one spot for them,” Huff said. “So, if you have a control issue, if you have someone in there because they’re violent, they’ve been fighting with other people, or you have a person with a high level of toxicity, we have no spot to put them.”

Bowe said that he was threatened to be sued over the phone because “they’re not protecting the inmates.”

“You could take everybody off patrol and put them in detention,” Commissioner Mark Peck said jokingly.

However, there aren’t any simple answers.

Huff noted that there’s no magic formula to figure out what the appropriate level of staffing is, but attested that the level they’re “operating at is not sustainable.”

Cole asked if they’ve looked at transferring inmates to other jails across the state.

Huff said they have looked into that, however many jails across the state are experiencing similar issues.

For example, Huff said, one inmate needed to have surgery in Flathead County, and they’re plan was to have them spend the night in the Flathead jail. They came to find that their jail “did not have physical space to hold one individual overnight.”

After witnessing the utility of the new reserve officers in Troy, Troy Mayor and County Administrator Darren Coldwell asked if reserve officers could work.

The problem with reserves is they can’t put them in service unless the department offered the overtime shift to the detention officers, Huff said, noting they have used reserve officers extensively to sit on patients at the hospital.

EXPANDING THE JAIL is a less-urgent issue than hiring more detention officers, but Huff and Bowe said it’s necessary at some point with the increase in inmate population.

After the commissioners meeting, Bowe, Huff and engineer Mike Fraser went down to look at the feasibility of expanding the jail by converting the former evidence room into cells. Fraser said that it’s possible.

However, even expanding isn’t an easy task. They still would have to look at if they’re even licensed to expand, and what costs would be associated with having to add accommodations, such as outdoor recreation, in the event of an expansion.

This comes at a time when Lincoln County’s budget is growing tighter and tighter. At a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in January, Commissioner Peck addressed the crowd on the county’s budget issues. He shared that while they used to be able just to cut “a little bit here and a little bit there,” they’re going to have to start cutting “arms and legs” financially.

“It’s not how much money do we want to spend, it’s how much money do we have,” Peck said.

THE JUVENILE DETENTION FACILITY in Troy merging with the Sheriff’s Office has been a topic of conversation for the past year. While some ideas have been proposed on the future of the facility, Bowe said nothing is set in stone.

The facility has some of the same issues the jail has, some of the employees there work full time with massive overtime to keep up with fluctuating demand.

After almost an hour of discussion, the commissioners planned to meet with Huff and Bowe on Friday to discuss what their next steps would be.

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