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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kootenai County prepares for jail expansion as inmate population spikes

Inmates gather in a common area at the Kootenai County Jail in Coeur d’Alene in June 2013. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The number of inmates in Kootenai County’s custody reached an all-time high over the weekend as county leaders moved forward with plans to expand the jail, which has been overcrowded for more than a decade.

The Kootenai County Jail near the fairgrounds in Coeur d’Alene is designed to house 327 inmates, but on Sunday morning it housed 381. Another 58 inmates had to be held in facilities outside the county, bringing the total in-custody population to 439.

About 78 percent of those inmates were being held on felony charges, and nearly a quarter were women. The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office reported it was the first time the number of women in its custody exceeded 100.

Detective Dennis Stinebaugh, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, said the county’s weekend inmate population was generally less than 400 during the past six months. Jail officials haven’t yet compiled data to figure out what caused the spike, he said.

Jail populations are in a constant state of flux, as some inmates are held for only a few hours at a time. More than a dozen inmates had been released as of Monday morning, and 51 were expected to make their first appearances in court, at which point they could post bond, Stinebaugh said.

But it remained clear that overcrowding would continue to be a problem, said Kootenai County Commissioner Marc Eberlein.

Last week, the three-member board of county commissioners took another step toward a $12.3 million, 120-bed expansion of the jail – a project that Eberlein described as long overdue.

Over the weekend, Kootenai County inmates were being held in jails in Idaho’s Bonner County and Washington’s Yakima and Ferry counties. Eberlein said such arrangements will cost Kootenai County nearly $1 million this year.

“We’re rapidly approaching the point where we’d be spending more money to house people outside of the county,” he said.

Sheriff Ben Wolfinger has said the jail expansion is needed for the safety of inmates and staff alike.

Population growth in Kootenai County may help explain the increased burden on the jail. Census data show that the county’s population grew from less than 110,000 people in 2000 to an estimated 154,300 last year, an increase of nearly 41 percent.

Kootenai County voters have shot down three expansion proposals since the jail was last expanded in 2002, Eberlein said. Those proposals involved tax increases, but the current project will be paid for with county reserves and does not require a public vote.

Officials said construction will begin in late May and should be completed by August 2018.

The construction will include a shell building so that more cells can be installed at a low cost in the future, Eberlein said.

Additionally, the county will hire about 20 new jail staff members, he said.