County to Begin $1.3 Million Jail Expansion

Extra space will add 40 beds to current jail but sheriff says it’s not a long-term solution

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

Contractors are expected to start tearing down walls in the old county attorney’s office the first week of November to make way for a $1.3 million expansion of Flathead County’s crowded jail.

Last week, the Flathead County Commission finalized jail expansion plans with MC Builders, a company made up of Martel Construction and CTA Architects Engineers. The expansion will add approximately 40 new beds to the Flathead County Detention Center, a facility built 30 years ago to hold about 60 inmates but today frequently hosts more than 100.

On Oct. 27, there were 123 inmates in the jail, some sleeping in portable floor beds called “boats.”

Sheriff Chuck Curry said he is excited to have the extra space but warned that a new jail is still needed.

“We’ll fill these new beds within a week,” he said. “This isn’t a long-term solution.”

Curry said county officials hope to complete the expansion into the old county attorney’s office — which has moved to a new space across the street — in the spring of 2017.

County officials say operating the expanded jail will cost another $500,000 in the coming years, to cover two new employees and other services and supplies.

In the past, Curry and other law enforcement officials have said that officers are unable to arrest some suspects because there 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.

Curry said the vast majority of inmates at the county jail are there for felony offenses, which means people who have been charged with or convicted of a misdemeanor rarely see the inside of the jail, unless it’s a violent crime. Curry said not punishing misdemeanor offenders could lead to bigger problems later on.

“If you don’t discipline your kids for little things, sooner or later they’ll start doing bigger things like burning your house down,” Curry said. “That’s what we’re seeing here in Flathead County. Misdemeanor offenders turn into felony offenders.”

While contractors are knocking down walls to expand the current jail, county officials are focusing their attention on post-expansion plans. Flathead County recently received a $40,000 Community Development Block Grant to begin planning for a potential new jail. County Administrator Mike Pence said once the grant money has arrived, officials will begin studying exactly what type of facility the community needs and where it should be located. The county will also look at the possibility of expanding the current jail again.

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