Confinement conundrum

Outdated equipment presents toughest challenge at county jail

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FLATHEAD COUNTY SHERIFF Chuck Curry and Detention Commander Bill Smith speak about the challenges at the Flathead County Detention Center during a walkthrough on Feb. 5.

An ancient access control system and cramped quarters have left the Flathead County Detention Center in the precarious position of trying to provide for future needs while tied to resources of the past.

When it was built in 1985, the county jail included the modern technology of its day: A control system featuring rotary and flip switches and large plastic push-buttons. The system of switches, buttons and knobs controls all movement through the facility by both inmates and staffers.

Over time that system has aged, and not gracefully.

Detention Commander Bill Smith said replacement parts for the system aren’t even manufactured anymore and no longer are available. This leads to lengthy and difficult repairs when parts fail. He pointed to a broken sensor in the jail’s control room as an example.

“To take that panel apart and attempt to rewire it and fix that problem would risk creating more problems, so it’s easier to leave it how it is,” Smith said.

Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry explained the situation in starker terms.

“We’re concerned that — with what we have — with one flip of a switch it could all become inoperable,” Curry said.

Smith said the age of the system and wiring also pose problems.

“Updates aren’t just a matter of swapping out a panel,” Smith said. “Every time someone comes in to fix the wiring, they say it will take a day or two and it ends up being three or four.”

That extra time also means extra costs.

NOT ALL OF THE JAIL’S electronics, however, are inadequate. The jail’s cameras are relatively new and of higher quality, and their controls were installed with the cameras, providing easy and clear observation of inmates and the facility as a whole.

But despite their better quality, the jail still needs a few more of them.

Updating the entire control system, Curry said, will require a complete rewiring as well as new equipment, such as touch screens, with a total price tag of roughly $350,000. Curry said he is including the funds in this year’s budget request.

“That needs to happen simply because it’s so dated,” Smith said, indicating the system was only designed to last 15 years and has now been in use for nearly twice that long.

Another immediate improvement Curry would like to see is a minor remodel of the booking area to improve the flow and add a second dedicated booking station. The added station would enable one detention officer to book a new inmate while another officer could release one or book a second inmate.

AGING ELECTRONICS are not the only large issue looming in the facility’s future.

According to Smith, the jail was designed to house 63 people. Even after the library was converted to a housing unit, the bed count was only increased to 87.

“What you’ll find over any given year, we’ll average 89 inmates at any one time, but you’ll see spikes,” he said.

Whenever the jail population reaches 92, law officials start restricting the crimes for which they will incarcerate people, although they always accept new inmates on felonies, DUIs and violent crimes.

Smith said the lack of space becomes a bigger issue any time the jail has to hold prisoners being transferred to the Montana Department of Corrections. Any delays in placement or processing can lead to spikes in the number of people being housed in the jail.

“People think of a county jail being strictly affected by local courts, but that isn’t always the case because we’re all part of the same system,” Curry said, calling the makeup of the jail at any given point “a snapshot of a larger judicial system.”

It has recently led to an average of 95 inmates between Jan. 1 and Feb. 5.

“The reason is that we’re holding more DOC (Department of Corrections) people because placement in DOC has slowed down,” Smith said. “They have to have a place to go before they leave here.”

The impact of those holds for placement is measured in bed days, for which the jail bills the state for reimbursement of housing costs.

In December 2011, the jail billed 123 bed days, climbing to 201 in January 2012. The jail billed 361 bed days in December 2012 and 369 bed days in January this year.

But that is only one problem out of many related to the jail’s population that come and go.

“That’s this month’s issue,” Curry said.

ANOTHER COMMON problem arises not due to numbers but the type of inmates in what Curry called the “dynamics of the population.”

For example, on Feb. 5 there were three women housed in receiving and two housed in the medical wing because the general population area for women was full at 13 inmates. Any other issues requiring an inmate to be housed separately from other inmates  worsens the problem.

It is for that reason Smith said the number of inmates alone isn’t always an issue.

“It can be overcrowded at 79 or 80 and be OK at 102,” Smith said.

In addition, the jail also is coping with an increase in the county’s population, which grew from 74,507 in 2000 to 90,871 in 2010 and estimated to be 91,301 in 2011. According to the Montana Department of Commerce, Flathead County’s population was roughly 57,600 when the jail was built.

Despite the different factors that challenge the Sheriff’s Office and detention staff in the balancing act of keeping people who pose a threat to the community off the street, meeting their obligation of holding inmates for placement by the state, and making sure there is room to house new offenders, Curry said he is not pushing for an expansion of the jail.

“We’ll continue to make do with the physical building size we have until there’s absolutely no way to do that,” Curry said. “Expanding is still a viable option, but I don’t feel we’re at a point to do that yet.”

POTENTIAL RENOVATION and updates to the jail are not new ideas.

Plans to expand the jail and add 208 beds at a cost of $13.8 million were brought up and eventually scrapped in fall 2002.

In December that year, an expansion adding 100 beds was priced at $12 million.

Another plan was floated in 2005, when then-Sheriff Jim Dupont proposed a more modest $6.1 million expansion, but it also fizzled.

That plan included a 48-bed minimum security wing at a cost of $3 million, an upgrade of security and electrical systems at a cost of $1 million and other renovations intended to reduce the amount of staff time spent handling prisoners at a cost of $2.1 million.

An entirely new jail also was briefly proposed, but never gained any steam — partially due to its $50 million price tag.

Regardless of any plans for improvements, time has proven that progress on the issue remains slow, as highlighted by a prediction made roughly five years ago by then-Detention Commander Kathy Frame about the possibility of expanding the jail.

“Within the next five years, there will be some sort of movement made,” Frame said.

It is because of resistance to past efforts and an understanding of the current economic environment, as well as a healthy dose of realism, that Curry and Smith have pushed the use of the jail and its equipment as far as they have without updates.

“We’re very cognizant of the economy,” Smith said. “We don’t want to put the Sheriff’s Office in the position of asking for money unless we can show a return on what we’ve got.”

Curry offered a similar sentiment.

“I think it’s also very important to be a good steward of the tax dollars and not ask for pie-in-the-sky things,” Curry said.

Reporter Jesse Davis may be reached at 758-4441 or by email at

DETENTION COMMANDER BILL SMITH and Officer Alta Miles work in the control room of the Flathead County Detention Center in Kalispell on Feb. 5. The control room and adjoining booking area would receive the bulk of improvements to be recommended by Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry.


Detail of the antiquated second floor door control panel with its jerry-rigged speaker. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)


Detention Center Commander Bill Smith leans over the door control panel on the second floor on Tuesday, February 5. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

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