While it is not an “emergency situation,” the Flathead County jail continues to struggle with a lack of space, according to Jail Commander Jennifer Grande.
This comes despite the jail’s July 2017 expansion that increased the jail’s bed count to 154. The $1.3 million addition to the original jail – which was built in 1985 – was accomplished by renovating space on the second floor of the Justice Center where the county attorney’s offices were located.
But the expansion – which created more open-concept “pod units” where a large number of inmates share the same space – “was just a Band-Aid fix,” Grande said.
“Our ultimate goal should be returning inmates to our community better,” she said, “and we can’t do that right now.”
Grande said the jail is having a hard time finding room for important programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and worship services. And even with 24 beds in one of the new units, the jail cannot fill all the beds in that space because of the potential for conflicts between inmates.
Sheriff Brian Heino echoed these concerns. He said the expansion helped, “but finding 13-20 people to get along is sometimes difficult.”
Heino also stressed the need for more single-cell units for mentally ill inmates, program space and even medical exam rooms. Plus, the Sheriff’s Office also is strained for space, he said.
Heino said he would like to add another employee such as a public information officer or “another finance person,” though he would not have a place to put them.
While it is far from ideal, Heino is realistic about the county’s situation.
“We’re better off than a lot of places,” he said, adding that the county actually takes in select inmates from full jails in neighboring jurisdictions like Lake County. Flathead County gets paid to host these inmates.
“But we don’t want to get back to a crisis in 10 years and ask the taxpayers in an emergency situation,” Heino said.
“The sheriff knows what his needs are,” County Administrator Mike Pence said. He said he is keeping that 10-year time-frame in mind.
Pence said the 2017 expansion delayed the need for a huge multi-million dollar project by 10 years. “Without those additional beds we’d be needing to go to voters fairly soon,” he said.
He said he is trying to “tuck as many dollars away” for the jail as he feasibly can, so if the county pursues a bond it can throw “a significant number of millions” of dollars into a new jail project. He added that building a new jail would be in the $70 million range.
In 2018, the county looked at different options for a new county jail from an outside architect. Heino and Pence both said they still have those plans stored in their offices.
One roadblock is finding a place to build a new facility. Pence said there is no room to build next to the county courthouse, but finding an appropriate off-site location for the jail presents a new dilemma for the county.
Because of a Montana rule that requires the offices of elected officials to be within the city limits of the county seat, if Heino wanted a new Sheriff’s Office attached to a new jail, the facility would have to be within the Kalispell city limits.
Commissioner Pam Holmquist said she is hoping to have that rule addressed at the next state legislative session in 2021, but for now that means a location such as the old Kmart building in Evergreen would not work.
Holmquist called a new jail the “big-ticket item” she has been working on for a long time as commissioner. She also said it was the “big elephant in the room” when the commissioners are discussing space constraints for county employees and facilities.
“Right now we’re sitting pretty good,” she said. “But at some point it’s gonna swing the other way again … then we’re going to be in crisis again.”
Heino said the jail can handle its current intake, which is usually a little under 100 inmates. The jail was holding 103 people on Feb. 12, on the higher end of recent daily numbers.
But he is concerned that a growing population could put a strain on the current facility.
“We don’t really know where our jail numbers are going to be,” Heino said.
With the Flathead County justice and district courts also strained for space, the vision is to gut the existing jail facility and create new space for the courts, Pence said.
But the county is a long way from a new jail facility, so Pence said he is working on “medium-term” solutions to find space, like purchasing the old CenturyLink building on North Main Street next to the U.S. 93 and U.S. 2 intersection.
Holmquist is opposed to this purchase, and said she hopes the county continues to talk about the need for a new jail facility.
But as Heino said, “The jail is a tough topic because it costs a lot to build a structure that’s secure.”
Reporter Colin Gaiser may be reached at 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org