Jail staff led state lawmakers, local politicians and business leaders on a tour through Kootenai County’s jail on Thursday to promote a $50 million expansion that will be on the November ballot.
“Please don’t kill the messenger,” Capt. Travis Chaney said to the 30-some people gathered for the tour. “No matter how much people don’t like the price tag of $50 million, it’s there.”
Chaney said the $12.5 million expansion that voters approved in 2000 through a half-cent sales tax increase is already at capacity and inmates continue to pour in. Now the county wants voters to approve the continuation of the local-option sales tax to fund an expansion that would add bed space and improve services at the jail, from the kitchen to the medical unit.
Inmates peered through safety glass as the tour group went through the booking area and later stopped in a hallway surrounded by dormitory-style pods added in the most recent expansion of the jail.
Because there are more prisoners than bunk space, mattresses are spread on the floor and under stairwells. Jailer Rafael Merrill told the tour group about the mischief that the crowding has led to. After the lights go out at night, Merrill said, some inmates take the mattresses and slide down the concrete staircases, heads covered so guards watching the video monitors can’t tell who the troublemakers are.
Others tinker with the fire alarms, Merrill said.
Chaney said there are other issues that have arisen with the jail housing 379 inmates – about 50 more than capacity.
Tempers flare, he said, and the staff has fewer options when trying to determine which areas of the jail to house new prisoners.
A deputy in charge of helping make that determination told the tour group that she runs into trouble when she ends up with an inmate who has more than one relative in jail, plus an enemy or two and is either a minority or a racist. The tour group laughed as she described the quandary, but she said it’s a reality she often faces.
Sometimes, she said, she has to move up to five other prisoners to accommodate a new arrival.
Nurse Judy LoBue said about 80 percent of the jail population is on some sort of medication. She said they’ve had the same amount of staffing in the medical unit since the days when the jail only had 150 inmates.
Even something as simple as filling a request for an ibuprofen is cumbersome because of the limited staff and the paperwork required, LoBue said.
Kitchen supervisor Karen Heath said her staff had a 7 percent increase in the meals it prepared in one year’s time. She has five cooks under her and a constantly changing staff of about 20 inmate workers.
Not only is she short on storage space, but Heath said she also needs more than just the one griddle the kitchen staff has available, and perhaps another kettle and some more oven space.
The proposed expansion includes a larger kitchen and would also include a 40-bed medical unit. To deal with the increasing number of inmates convicted of felonies, the maximum security unit would be expanded.
Another 140 beds would be added for medium security inmates.
A total of 116,000 square feet would be added under the proposed expansion and 43,000 square feet of existing space remodeled.
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