When the Flathead County Detention Center was built in 1985, it could hold 63 inmates. The jail, located in downtown Kalispell in the same facility as the district and justice courts and county attorney’s office, even had a library where those incarcerated could check out books or study.
Thirty years later, the library is relegated to a rolling cart of books. Bookshelves have been replaced with more beds. The inmate population has ballooned to more than 100 on most night and Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry says some offenders are released to make room for those deemed more dangerous.
“We do our best to keep the public safe, but the system isn’t working the way it should because we just don’t have the space,” Curry said last week while walking through the jail. “The jail isn’t falling apart. It’s just too small.”
Flathead County’s plight is common. According to a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union, Montana’s jails are “locked in the past” and are “bearing the brunt of a broken criminal justice system.” The report, issued earlier this year, found that Yellowstone County Jail was built to hold approximately 285 inmates but is often holding more than 400. In April of this year, there were 491 inmates in the Billings jail. The ACLU report placed much of the blame on shrinking budgets and a sluggish criminal justice system. According to the report, the average pre-trial detainment is anywhere from three to nine months. Some Montana inmates have been jailed up to two years while awaiting sentencing.
Because of limited jail space, many arrest warrants go unanswered. Curry said there are approximately 3,800 people in Flathead County with outstanding warrants — a number that does not include warrants issued by police departments in Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Whitefish.
Occasionally, Curry said, jail officials meet with judges and county attorneys to see what inmates can be released on their own recognizance or be put on house arrest in order to free up space. In other instances, offenders who need to serve jail time for lesser offenses avoid their punishment.
“A lot of these guys know they have warrants for their arrest, but they don’t care because they know there is no space for them in jail,” Curry said.
In one extreme example, in Lake County, where jail space is also at a minimum, a man charged with a handful of misdemeanors was wanted for failing to appear in court. When police found him, the man led them on a high-speed motorcycle chase and eventually crashed into the side of one of the sheriff’s vehicles. Police took the man to the hospital, wrote him a ticket and released him.
Curry said traditionally the Flathead County jail would house a mixture of people accused of or convicted of misdemeanor and felony crimes. But last month, when there were 108 inmates in the detention center, 106 of them were charged with felonies.
Some of the most dangerous inmates are held in a maximum-security wing. In each “pod,” two cells are connected to a common room with a table and a television. While some are critical of giving inmates access to amenities, Curry said it helps occupy them and gives officers something to take away should the inmates misbehave.
When there are more inmates than beds, temporary “boats” are used in common rooms and just about anywhere else. The makeshift plastic beds look like sleds that can be spread out on the floor. While the “boats” are supposed to be temporary, they are used nearly every day in Flathead County.
Overcrowded jails also raise safety concerns for inmates and jail staff. When there are more inmates, fights are frequent and stress levels are higher, according to jail commander Jenny Root, who noted that there are at least five staff members in the jail at all times, with more during weekdays.
“When there are 105 inmates and five staff members, tensions get high,” Root said.
In 1985, when the jail was built, Flathead County’s population was approximately 57,600; today, more than 93,000 people live here. Curry noted that overcrowding is an old problem. He said when the jail first opened it filled up almost immediately, but now it’s at a “critical mass.”
Flathead County is currently looking at purchasing the former WalMart in Evergreen to house a new jail. Administrator Mike Pence said the county has already agreed to buy the 130,000-square-foot building located along U.S. Highway 2 from its current owners for approximately $2.8 million. The county is currently working on a formal buy-sell agreement, and it’s unclear when the deal will be closed. After that, a feasibility study would be completed. If the deal goes through, local officials say it could still be years before it opens.
Lake County is also looking to expand its jail, which can currently accommodate 46 inmates, according to Sheriff Don Bell.
“Our jail is half the size of Lake County’s needs,” Bell said. “It’s frustrating, because I cannot protect the community as well as I need to because I just don’t have the jail space.”