ST. MARIES – A sign behind the front desk of the Benewah County Sheriff’s Office wryly cautions visitors: “No whining, crying, outright blubbering or the likes thereof … whatsoever! This is a respectable jail.”
It says nothing about breaking out, but the county is looking to discourage that behavior as well after a series of escapes through a deteriorating brick wall.
The jail and sheriff’s office are crowded onto the third floor of the county courthouse, built in 1924. The building’s brick mortar is weak and all too easy to scrape away. Prisoners are able to loosen enough bricks to squeeze through in about an hour, Sheriff Robert Kirts estimates.
Two inmates in a dormitory cell broke out just after midnight on Aug. 16 after removing bricks above the shower in the cell’s bathroom. They shinnied down the back of the courthouse on strips of bedsheets knotted together, and were caught a few hours later.
A convicted burglar escaped from the same bathroom, removing bricks next to the toilet, in July 2011. He was recaptured after five days on the run, but broke out again two months later. He was back in jail the same day of his second escape.
Others over the decades have dug through this porous pokey or been stopped in the act. In the back alley of the courthouse, the history of escape is written on the wall, with mismatched patch jobs in the brickwork marking the spots where prisoners have burst through.
“I don’t know how they get through those holes, I really don’t,” said Kirts, who has been sheriff for 16 years over two stretches since 1980.
He also isn’t sure how many prisoners have let themselves out this way in the jail’s 88-year history, but Kirts does know the year of the first escape: 1947.
It’s not just crumbling mortar, but also the jail’s design that helps inmates find a way out.
The jail has two dormitory cells for men – both along the fragile back wall – and one reserved for women. A more secure block of individual cells is said to have come off a World War I warship and lifted onto the top floor of the courthouse when it was built.
The bathroom where the recent escapes originated is in one of the men’s dorms, around a corner and not visible from the cell door, giving prisoners opportunity to dig unnoticed.
“At nighttime we can’t go in there to see what the heck they’re doing because they’re sleeping,” Kirts said.
To scrape away the mortar prisoners use improvised tools like a piece of wire off a mop bucket.
“Actually, if you get a stout enough plastic spoon you could probably dig out,” Kirts said. “At this point the tensile strength of the mortar is about zero.”
He knows what needs to be done. “The best solution would be a new jail,” he said. “However, given the economy and the people out of work here, that’s not going to happen.”
The rural county of just over 9,000 residents has seen double-digit unemployment since the start of 2009, recently as high as 17.6 percent in March. Median household income is $37,500 a year, about $6,000 below the Idaho average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“They’ll build a new jail eventually,” Kirts said, “if the economy comes back up and everything gets paid for.”
A quick fix, the sheriff said, would be to secure a steel plate on the inside of the exterior wall of the troublesome bathroom. “That seems to be the favorite place of people to be exiting,” he said.
The age of the Benewah County Jail, as well as the jail staffing the county is able to support, prevented the facility from being certified last year by the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association, which maintains jail standards and annually inspects all county jails.
Compliance with the standards is voluntary, and jails can continue to operate even if they are not certified.
Benewah County does a “commendable job” of trying to achieve certification, which involves 328 inspection standards, said Vaughn Killeen, executive director of the sheriffs’ association.
“They meet most of the requirements,” Killeen said.
But like many small jails in rural counties, the one in St. Maries is hindered by the age of building and the size of the county budget, he said.
Older jails tend to struggle to meet standards concerning cell size, emergency escape, moving prisoners securely and visibility of inmate areas, Killeen said.
Many jail standards are in place because of court decisions on the humane treatment of inmates, but often the public doesn’t share the same regard for the constitutional rights of prisoners, Killeen said.
“And a lot of people just feel, ‘Look, they’re inmates, what they’re getting is good enough as far as I’m concerned,’ ” he said.
That can make it difficult for counties to persuade voters to approve tax measures to build jails that meet modern standards, he said.
Benewah County has an average of eight jailers to staff all shifts for up to 16 inmates, who are in for everything from drunken driving to charges of murder. The tax base in counties like this “is just not sufficient enough to spread the wealth around, enough to take care of the staffing issues,” Killeen said.
Time to fix it
Benewah County commissioners met to discuss the jailbreak problem last week and take a closer look at the cells, Commissioner Bud McCall said.
“We’re going to fix it. To what extent, I’m really not sure,” McCall said, but he added there is some urgency to stopping the breakouts.
“We knew that they had escapes like that once before, but we weren’t sure that the sheriff hadn’t done something about fixing it,” he said. “We know now it has to be done, and that’s what we intend to do.”
The county has not asked voters to fund a new jail but probably will need to at some point, McCall said.
“It’s went by us several times, about replacing it, but we really have to have a place to put it, and we haven’t made a decision on where that will be yet,” he said. “It’s been milled around for 20 years.”
As for Kirts, he’s planning his own escape from the third floor. The sheriff is approaching 70 and will wrap up his law enforcement career at year’s end.
“After 40 years I’m calling it a day.”
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