County takes first step toward jail expansion with site tour, discussion

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Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe, center, discusses the county dispatch center with County Commissioner Mike Cole, left, and Jim Muskovich of Montana Association of Counties during a tour of the county jail on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

A Montana Association of Counties representative who toured Lincoln County Jail Wednesday said he is “fully behind” the county’s preliminary idea to expand the facility’s capacity — possibly almost tripling the number of cells — by using the jail’s existing space.

“I compliment you guys on this problem solving,” said Jim Muskovich. “One of the toughest things to do is decide to take the first step.”

The next step is to find the money to fund engineering and architectural studies and to determine the cost and direction of a path forward.

Muskovich came to Libby to discuss the jail expansion with Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe and the Lincoln County Commission. Given the expense and other issues of building a new facility, the county has been considering moving around various Sheriff’s Office and other county personnel so that the jail can be expanded within the Lincoln County Courthouse basement where it currently sits.

“It’s a lot easier to move desks and personnel than detainees,” Muskovich said in his discussion with county officials.

Bowe said two of his goals are to expand the number of cells from 24 to 65 to 70, and to do so without moving dispatch facilities.

Moving dispatch would “gobble up a ton of money” due to technical and other concerns, he told Muskovich.

Moreover, with its windows onto the detention center and its security cameras, dispatch also serves as another set of eyes, Bowe said.

The discussion of expanding capacity included talk of adding cells specifically to house juveniles and people with mental health issues. Bowe also indicated a desire to add two or three “general population” cells to hold short-term detainees — such as those associated with drunk-driving and other quick-turn incidents — to keep them segregated from inmates who are jailed for longer times and more serious crimes.

Bowe also said he hoped to improve the conditions of the waiting room, which he said can be “embarrassing on visiting day.”

After the tour, Muskovich said sufficient space exists for Bowe to realize his goal of almost tripling the number of cells by building out the basement. He said that re-engineering the heating and cooling systems would take some effort, but that items such as plumbing and fire safety are in a good starting place to build upon.

Bowe said many of the walls and parts of the ceiling are not load bearing and could be easily removed.

Muskovich noted that an expansion would not only improve conditions for both inmates and staff, but it could also be a source of income for the county by allowing it to house detainees from other jurisdictions.

“The question of the day is, do we need to expand?” Bowe asked.

“Yes, and you have for some time now,” Muskovich responded. And given widespread agreement that overcrowding is a problem, he said that it is “not only necessary but incumbent upon you to do so.”

The goal, Muskovich said, is to “make it workable for the detainees, because ultimately it makes it workable for the staff.”

Muskovich said that other Montana counties, including Lewis and Clark and Roosevelt, have either already gone down the jail-expansion path or are looking at it. He said he could put the county in touch with the appropriate people for input and provide a list of engineering firms with experience working on such projects.

Next steps include finding the funding for an engineering and architectural study. County Administrator Darren Coldwell said the county’s timeline is “as soon as we possibly can to have an avenue to move forward.”

He said the application deadline has passed for a community development block grant, though he was told funds are sometimes leftover.

Expanding jail capacity within its existing space comes with significant considerations.

“Once we start a process like this, everything has to go to code,” Coldwell said, meaning that any new construction would need to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act and other regulations.

Muskovich noted that there are also Montana jail standards based on the national standards, though the state’s standards are still considered voluntary. Bowe said that these standards already have been implemented in the county’s policies and procedures.

County Commissioner Mark Peck said that “everything is on the table” as the county determines how best to proceed. That could include ideas such as moving some offices to Asa Wood School, closing down 5th Street next to the jail to expand parking or outdoor recreation facilities — a suggestion floated in a previous plan that wasn’t acted upon — or weighing the costs of a new facility.

“We can’t stay status quo,” Peck said. “The public needs to know we got a problem. We need to overcome the average citizen’s apathy. There are national jail standards and we have our own and there are major consequences if we don’t meet those.”

As part of the jail expansion project Bowe is assembling a citizen advisory group. So far he’s tapped local businessmen George Mercer of Glacier Bank and Tom Gilmore of Ace Hardware and Northwest Motorsports, and he’s looking for representatives from Troy and Eureka. The group would likely also include Coldwell, a County commissioner and representatives from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office.

Bowe said he would take up Muskovich on his invitation to attend at least the first meeting of the group to help get it up to speed. Muskovich said “we can borrow some of the things Lewis and Clark County” has already started with.

Wednesday’s discussions had a sense of urgency about them.

“With the crisis we have, we don’t want to get stuck in study and grants,” said County Commissioner Mike Cole.

“Might as well get it done right,” Peck said. “I don’t want to swing at this pitch too many times.”

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