Commission Votes to Expand Overcrowded County Jail

Expansion will add 36 beds but officials say it’s not a long-term solution

By Justin Franz
A guard checks the rooms at the Flathead County jail. Beacon File Photo

The Flathead County Commission has given the green light to expand the current jail into the now-empty county attorney’s office in Kalispell.

But local officials, including Sheriff Chuck Curry, said the 36-bed expansion is only a temporary solution to the county’s ongoing jail crowding problem, an issue that is not only impacting the law enforcement community but the inmates as well.

The current jail was built in the 1980s to hold about 60 inmates, but today it frequently houses more than 100 adults every night. On one night in June, there were 125 people incarcerated at the detention center.

Earlier this year, Curry approached the commission about knocking down an adjacent wall on the second floor of the Flathead County Justice Center to expand the jail into the former county attorney’s office. In April, the commission gave approval to hire a design firm to create a rough draft of what the expansion would look like and get a cost estimate. Previously, plans called for the Justice Court and Clerk of Court’s office to expand into the old county attorney’s space. The expansion will add about 4,500 square feet to the jail.

Last week, the design firm presented its findings to the commission, and on July 18 the three-person board voted to go forward with the plan, expected to cost upwards of $1 million, according to County Administrator Mike Pence.

The county will use a design-build expansion process similar to what Whitefish is using to build its new city hall, and hire an architecture firm to come up with detailed drawings before requesting bids from general contractors.

Pence said they hope to have the office converted into jail space within nine months.

“We want this to happen as soon as possible, but it’s hard to put an exact date on completion because there are a lot of moving parts,” he said.

Curry notes that the county still desperately needs a new a jail. Curry and the county commission are currently assembling a board to look at options for how to construct a new detention center.

In the past, Curry and other law enforcement officials have said that officers are unable to arrest some suspects because there simply isn’t enough room at the jail. In some instances, the sheriff’s office has worked with the county attorney to find inmates who could be released while awaiting trial, but within a few days they are back in custody.

The overcrowding is also impacting the inmates. Thomas Richard Nichols, who was sentenced to prison for sexual assault on July 22, spent time in the county jail in 2011 and again this year, and he said the situation is much worse today. Back then, rooms would have four or five people, but today seven is the average.

“More inmates means more tension and more problems between inmates,” Nichols said. “Fights easily break out in here and everyone is on edge.”

Curry agrees that tensions have been high because of the additional inmates, but notes that jails are rarely relaxed places.