News & Features

Jails Across Northwest Montana Struggle with Crowding

Flathead receives anonymous donation for new jail, Lincoln closes juvenile facility amid cuts

The jails in Kalispell, Libby and Polson are all different, but they all have one issue in common: they’re at capacity.

Amid rising crime rates and an unrelenting drug problem, law enforcement officials in Northwest Montana have said that keeping the public safe while ensuring sufficient breathing room at the local jail is becoming more challenging.

Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe called the jail crowding issue in Libby a “crisis” that started a few years ago but came to a head over the last six months. Bowe said the current jail was built in the 1970s to hold about two-dozen inmates but recently had to hold nearly twice that number. On average, the jail has more than 35 people a night.

“We’re having to cite and release people who are getting DUIs because we simply don’t have any room,” Bowe said.

The situation in Libby comes as Lincoln County struggles to balance its budget. County Commissioner Mark Peck said cuts could be on the horizon. Recently, the county decided to shutter its juvenile facility in Troy and is now sending young inmates to Missoula. Flathead County made a similar move a few years ago to make more room for adult inmates. Bowe said the decision to close the Troy facility would save his office about $1,000 a day.

“There is not a lot of good news in the budget,” Peck said. “Costs keep going up and revenues keep going in the other direction… And we’re reaching a critical mass in that jail.”

Lake County’s jail is also overcrowded. In an effort to reduce the population, the county commission recently announced that it wants to stop prosecuting Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal members. But Lake County Sheriff Don Bell said such a move wouldn’t immediately solve the problem and that even if tribal members accused of crimes were moved to another facility, the county jail would still be at capacity.

The only bit of recent good news for any Northwest Montana jail came in the form of a $1 million anonymous donation toward the construction of a new Flathead County Detention Center. County Administrator Mike Pence said the county received the donation on March 8 and that it will be added to the $6 million the county has already saved for a new jail.

“We have not established a fundraising effort but sincerely appreciate this gift and any others small or large to fund the needed jail facility project,” Pence said.

Flathead County’s current jail was built 30 years ago to hold approximately 60 inmates but now often holds more than 100. In late 2016, the county began a $1.3 million expansion that will add 40 beds to the facility, but Sheriff Chuck Curry said a new jail would still be needed in the coming years. The expansion, which encompasses the old county attorney’s office, will be completed this summer.