Written by John Plestina
Roosevelt County Sheriff’s Office detention officer Brian Nelson points to a metal wall inside the “bullpen,” a section of the jail with metal passageways that surround the cells. It is part of the World War I era Navy shipboard brig inside the jail. (Photo by John Plestina)
The end is in sight for the antiquated Roosevelt County Jail, according to the sheriff’s office, which is asking voters for the funding to replace it.
If voters don’t approve a public safety bonding measure on the primary election ballot Tuesday, June 3, the county could be forced to close the more than four-decade-old lockup and the cost to the taxpayers could be substantially higher than a mill levy increase that would be necessary to fund construction and operational costs.
If the bonding measure passes, the costs to taxpayers for construction-related costs would be $46.06 per year for residential properties valued at $100,000 and $11.18 annually for operational expenses. The jail staff would increase from eight to 14.
The bonding measure asks voters to authorize the commissioners to issue and sell $11.86 million in general obligation bonds to be repaid within 20 years with an estimated annual fixed interest rate of 10 percent.
The Montana Code allows Roosevelt County to borrow a maximum of a little more than $17 million. Roosevelt County is currently debt free.
“It’s something I feel we have to do. There’s no question about it,” Roosevelt County Commissioner Gary Macdonald said after the commissioners adopted a resolution Thursday, Feb. 27, that included language limiting the amount of the indebtedness to a maximum of 2.5 percent of the total assessed value of taxable property in the county.
The proposal is to remodel the existing sheriff’s office and jail facility behind the Roosevelt County Courthouse with an addition, a less expensive option than building a completely new facility at a different site because it would reduce construction expenses and eliminate site acquisition costs. It would also retain the jail in close proximity to courtrooms, minimizing transportation costs.
The addition would provide a 60-bed jail that would be compliant with all standards.
The bonding includes the costs of designing, building, equipping and furnishing the jail and office space for the sheriff’s office that would be included. The proposed facility would include an “eyes-on” master control center, booking area, medical isolation area and several Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant cells. An E-911 communications center would be included in the facility.
The larger jail could generate revenue by accepting inmates from other counties and would be large enough to handle a much higher volume of local offenders as increases in crime are projected.
The current 17-bed jail has a rated jail capacity, per state standards, of only 11 beds. The jail averaged 15 inmates per day in 2012, with occasional peaks as high as 20. Nineteen were housed Friday, May 23. Fifteen were male and four female. Three were Native Americans. Most natives are sent to the Fort Peck Tribes jail in Poplar unless they committed a crime off the reservation.
Detention Officer Brian Nelson said most of the people lodged in the jail Friday, May 23 had previously served in prison.
As many as three people occupied some cells that have a capacity of two.
“We’re always at capacity. We get one. We lose one,” Undersheriff John Summers said and added that if the county doesn’t build a new jail, and crime continues to rise, an increasing number of inmates could be sent to other counties at local expense.
“The only way we get rid of some of them is when they get sentenced,” Summers said.
There have been increasing occurrences of county deputies, Wolf Point city officers and Montana Highway Patrol troopers releasing offenders with citations because the jail has been full.
The Valley County Jail in Glasgow is at capacity most days because Valley County has accepted inmates from Custer County. That county had to close its jail because it did not comply with standards.
Options remaining for Roosevelt County inmates, if they have to be sent to other counties include jails as far away as Great Falls, Summers said.
The logic for Roosevelt County building a new jail is compelling: It doesn’t have much choice. That’s because the current overcrowded 17-bed lockup is in disrepair after 42 years and is said by local officials to be an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit waiting to happen.
Some renovations were done at the Roosevelt County Jail last year so that the jail could remain open.
County officials have expressed concerns that the jail cannot meet current standards for Montana jails, cannot comply with requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act, has inadequate space for drug counseling and inmates who are on the sex offender registry.
The county has cited that the current jail was not designed for higher security risks jail officers now face, an increasing presence of out-of-state offenders, with at times as many as 90 percent awaiting trial on felony charges. Concerns have been raised that it has become difficult to separate non-violent offenders from violent felons. The county reports a more aggressive jail population than a few years ago.
Metal cells and walls in corridors between the aging jail’s cellblocks resemble passageways of a surplus ship scrapped long ago.
Jail Administrator Melvin Clark said the jail was built in 1972 with the metal cells that were moved from the former jail, built during the 1940s, and located in the current courthouse parking lot.
The 109-year-old metal cells were originally a World War I era shipboard Navy brig.
The need for a larger facility with enhanced security is increasing every year.
A Montana Board of Crime Control study for Roosevelt, Daniels, Richland and Sheridan counties, labeled by MBCC as the primary Bakken Oilfield region of Montana, shows an increase in criminal offences between 2008 and 2012 of 218 percent and an increase in arrests for the same period of 173 percent. Roosevelt County arrests rose 187 percent during the same period, the per capita crime rate for the four-year period went from 25 percent below the state average to 56 percent above and reported the highest percentage of increased crime in the region with 48.5 percent.
The MBCC study also projects a population increase for Roosevelt County of between 11 and 40 percent during the next 15 years.
A high bar for passage of the bonding measure concerns county officials. One fear is a possible low voter turnout with this year not being a presidential election year. If between 35 and 40 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, which is a possible scenario, a 60 percent supermajority would be required for passage. If 40 percent or more vote, only 51-percent approval would be adequate. If the voter turnout is below 35 percent, the measure automatically fails, regardless how high the percentage of affirmative votes might be.
“The downfall is going to be right here (Wolf Point). To get the voters out. Wolf Point is the biggest voting district,” Macdonald said.
He said if voters do not approve the measure, the county might have to close the jail, forcing the Sheriff’s Office to farm out all inmates to other counties at costs of $50 or more per person per bed plus transportation costs. Currently, with crowded conditions, some inmates are transported to Glasgow (if a bed is available) or Sidney.
If voters approve the bonding measure, the county hopes to begin the design phase in July, with construction starting during late spring or early summer of 2015. If those timelines are met, the addition could be opened by late 2016 with remodeling completed by early 2017.
The county commissioners have held informational public meetings in Wolf Point and Poplar and scheduled two more informational public meetings in Bainville and Culbertson, Wednesday, May 28, after press time.