Old County Detention Center Headed for Remodel

County officials take 'before' tour of the facility as it prepares for a major facelift

By Molly Priddy

Flathead County’s old detention center, built in 1902, is slated to undergo a major remodel and renovation in fiscal year 2015. With that in mind, county officials took a “before” tour of the facility as it existed on July 23, to see how the building has become a hodge-podge of add-ons, walls, mismatched wall paneling and inefficient spaces.

Leading the tour was Pat Walsh, a retired Flathead County sheriff’s deputy who grew up in the building from the time he was 1 year old to the middle of his senior year in high school while his father, Richard P. Walsh, was sheriff from 1947 to 1962.

In the time since the building was constructed, it has held many purposes. Originally and most famously, it was the county’s jail and sheriff’s office, built to hold a maximum capacity of 27 prisoners.

Walsh and his family lived in the residential areas of the building, in a time when the sheriff’s wife was also expected to cook for the prisoners. Sheriffs and their families lived in the jail building until 1968, Walsh said.

There are still old jail cells in the basement and second floor of the building, and the old holding tanks for prisoners now serve as county workshops.

The renovations will revamp the inside of the building, similar to how the county totally renewed the inside of the nearby courthouse building, which now houses various county departments.

With the remodel, the county will move the Flathead County Attorney’s Office from its current location at the Flathead County Justice Center to the old jail, giving the county attorneys more space and freeing up space at the justice center for the Clerk of Court offices and the Justice Court expansions.

There will also be room in the old jail for conference rooms and meeting spaces, county administrator Mike Pence said.

So far, the county has allotted $2.9 million for the project, Pence said, and the county’s capital improvement plan expects to pay out $1.5 million of that in fiscal year 2015.

The details of the project are still in the works, Pence said, but there will be special attention paid to ensuring the building retains its historical character.

While on the tour, Walsh showed various historical places, including the basement cell called “The Hole,” where problem prisoners used to be placed under the heat of the all the pipes – “my dad actually put his own brother in there,” Walsh said – and the root cellar where Walsh had pulled away the rocks of the building’s foundation and dug a tunnel into the yard.

Prisoners who worked in the jail were called trustees, Walsh said, and they did everything from the laundry to running the heating system. In first few decades of the jail’s existence, when the sheriff was also the closest person the county had to a fire chief, trustees were taken out on fire calls to help extinguish the blazes.

Walsh said law enforcement was a different animal back then, and it also changed significantly during his own 32-year career with the sheriff’s office.

“There was a dramatic difference between the sheriff’s office I started in and the one I left,” Walsh said.

One of the biggest differences is the call volume, he said, which is due to the county’s expanding population. In 1957, Walsh’s father reported 400 calls.

In 2013, the Flathead Emergency Communications Center fielded over 113,000 calls, including both emergency 911 calls and administrative calls.

“The work volume has just dramatically increased,” Walsh said.

The old detention center has served many purposes in its lifetime, housing various offices and serving as a storage space for records. With a new facelift, it will continue to serve the people of Flathead County, with more beauty and efficiency.

During his tenure as a deputy, Walsh served for a time as a detective and found that his new office was actually the bedroom he grew up in.

“It was a strange experience,” Walsh said. “It just seemed a whole lot smaller.”

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