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Jail less crowded, but still troubled

Inmates watch TV at the Kootenai County Jail last month. 
 (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Inmates watch TV at the Kootenai County Jail last month. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

There are more beds than inmates at the Kootenai County Jail for the first time in a long time.

After 15 months of overcrowding, with up to 25 percent more inmates in lockup than the jail is licensed to hold, inmate population dipped below capacity in December.

The number dropped again in January and February and leveled off in the past four months, with about a dozen empty beds on average each month.

Kootenai County Jail Capt. Travis Chaney doesn’t want county residents, who rejected an effort to fund jail expansion in November 2005, to get the impression that the need for extra space has waned.

“Even though our numbers have dipped, we’re not out of the fire,” Chaney said.

The county still houses some inmates in other counties at an annual cost of $1.5 million. If the 30 inmates locked up elsewhere were brought back to the county’s jail, the population easily would exceed the capacity of 325 prisoners.

In addition, the jail can’t simply fill bunks until it’s full. To help keep the peace, officials separate gang members, felons and violent offenders, meaning some beds must remain empty, Chaney said.

An increasingly rough crowd lives at the jail these days.

“Like it or not, North Idaho is growing up,” Chaney said.

The dormitory-style inmate housing added in the last expansion, in 2001, makes it difficult to segregate inmate populations that would clash. The dorm pods were designed for lower-risk inmates, who now share the space with more dangerous criminals because of the limited cell space.

In some cases, violent offenders are jailed side-by-side with misdemeanor offenders.

The situation is less than ideal, Chaney said, especially now that the jail is short on staff. Nine jail deputy positions are open and three more employees plan to leave soon, Chaney said.

Jail employees have been working mandatory overtime for the past 18 months, and overtime pay so far this year is $120,000 over budget.

Yet even as the segregation pressure worsens and more jail workers leave because of low pay, the Kootenai County Commission, which doles out tax dollars and must decide how to solve the crowding problem, has been mostly mum.

Last week, the public got its first glimpse of one possible solution: a proposed new jail next to the county’s soon-to-be-built garbage transfer station off Pleasant View Road, just west of Post Falls. Inmates – likely those already sentenced – would live at the new jail and work in an on-site recyclables sorting center.

Sheriff Rocky Watson and commissioners said it’s a way to fix the critical crowding and segregation problem as well as extend the life of the county landfill, saving taxpayers money in the long run. It also could turn the county’s lackluster recycling program into a regional workhorse.

It’s the first real talk about how to expand the jail since voters turned down a $50 million sales tax measure in 2005. The commission back then decided to leave the costly conundrum for Rick Currie and the two new commissioners who took office in January.

Currie said the commission has not lost focus on the jail problem, it just became dormant as newly elected Commissioners Rich Piazza and Todd Tondee learned the job.

Tondee said, “We’ve had so many other things really eating up our time. It’s not that it’s not important, but trying to figure out how to fund a $55 million to $75 million jail is pretty huge.”

County voters might get to decide the issue in November 2008, if the commission puts the jail and recycling center idea on the ballot. The measure likely would include money to build a new pod of single cells at the existing jail to ensure flexibility for segregation.

Some speculate the county could get the proposal on the ballot this November, just three months away. Even if voters were to approve the money, it likely would take at least three years to design and build the jail and recycling center.

“This is still an issue,” Chaney said. “The problem has not gone away. We’re bracing for another resurgence.”

As the inmate population gets more dangerous, the jail has seen an increase in attacks on jail staff and inmates assaulting each other, more inmates with mental and medical problems, and more inmates committing crimes while incarcerated.

Among the incidents reported in May:

•An inmate was charged with a felony for possessing a handmade weapon.

•Three uncooperative inmates were shocked with a Taser, and two were sprayed with pepper spray.

•Two fights between inmates were reported.

•Two inmates attempted suicide.

•One inmate attacked a detention deputy and was charged with felony battery.

Even though the jail population has dipped recently, the breather isn’t expected to last. It’s part of a fluctuation in inmate numbers that officials usually can’t explain.

Chaney suspects the area’s low unemployment rate – a record low 2.5 percent in July – might help explain the lower numbers.

The more crowded conditions of recent years, coupled with fewer deputies, have coincided with an increase in inmate grievances, lawsuits and tort claims, which could cost taxpayers money and jeopardize the jail’s license.

The County Commission inspects the jail every three months. The commission’s July 20 inspection report notes six tort claims, or precursors to lawsuits.

Also, two inmates filed complaints with the American Civil Liberties Union this year, and there have been three writs of habeus corpus, alleging violations of inmates’ constitutional rights.

Complaints range from a lack of hot water to cells that are too cramped. Most, including the recent ACLU filings, are unfounded, Chaney said. Still, the jail takes them seriously, he said.

The commission’s July inspection report noted the grievances but didn’t reveal any legal violations.

The jail also passed its annual inspection by the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association. In that May 21 report, Nick Albers, the association’s jail coordinator, said the county jail was “very clean and neat” and that inmate numbers were “consistently below your rated capacity.”

That’s a much better report than in June 2006, when overpopulation kept the jail from full compliance.

“You and your staff are faced with a very difficult situation,” Albers wrote in 2006. “The current situation jeopardizes Kootenai County and places everyone at risk for legal action.”

He added that he knew the county had difficulty persuading voters to pay for a jail expansion. “Hopefully the citizens of the county will realize the potential loss that they can incur by not taking the necessary steps to insure that you have a facility that can accommodate an increasing … population,” he wrote in the previous report.

Chaney said the population could surge any day, once again knocking the jail out of compliance.


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