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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Kootenai County sheriff: Overcrowded jail soon won’t be able to handle rising number of inmates

Lt. Kyle Hutchinson shows a video of an inmate who earlier this year escaped from his cell and into an inner containment area of the Kootenai County Jail, during a Town Hall presentation Thursday to community leaders in Coeur d’Alene.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Lt. Kyle Hutchinson shows a video of an inmate who earlier this year escaped from his cell and into an inner containment area of the Kootenai County Jail, during a Town Hall presentation Thursday to community leaders in Coeur d’Alene. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Kootenai County Sheriff Robert Norris is making a pitch to elected leaders to boost jail capacity.

The Kootenai County Jail is overcrowded and staffing to house the inmates isn’t keeping up, Norris said as he gave a tour of the jail to politicians last week.

“There is going to be a point and time where we’re not going to physically be able to handle these inmates,” he said.

At least one Kootenai County Commissioner believes Norris should put his argument for a larger jail on the ballot.

“My position is, if he believes that his argument is that compelling, take it to the voters and see if it passes,” Kootenai County Commissioner Chris Fillios said in a phone interview Sunday. “If it doesn’t pass, then potentially we have to look at a Plan B, whatever that may be.”

Voters could decide whether to vote for a levy that would allocate the funds Norris is seeking as early as November, Fillios said.

Norris hosted local elected officials and candidates for political offices, including mayors, state representatives and state senators, Thursday at the Coeur d’Alene jail. The presentation had similarities to a news conference he held in March when he used a Hauser Lake killing as an example of rising violent crime and a shortage of deputies to address it.

“We are coming off of the busiest winter on record in our patrol division,” Norris said Thursday.

He said there were 437 inmates at the county jail on Thursday, well above what he described as the “functional capacity” of 361 and nearing the certified capacity of about 451.

Norris floated the idea of placing a tent at the nearby Kootenai County Fairgrounds and putting minimum security inmates inside when there is no more room at the jail to house inmates. He told reporters he would possibly ask judges to release some inmates until their trial starts if the overcrowding intensifies.

“That time is coming,” he said.

Norris told officials and candidates other large Idaho counties, including Ada, Bonneville, Bannock, Canyon and Bonner, are experiencing similar inmate demands. He said he requested a meeting with Gov. Brad Little and the other large sheriff’s offices to address the issue.

Lt. Kyle Hutchison, who’s worked in the jail during his 16-year stint with the sheriff’s office, said the facility was built in 1985 and it was expanded in 2001 and 2019. Norris said the jail needs to be expanded again to protect the community.

But Norris advocated against using more than $20 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds, which has been proposed, on the downtown Coeur d’Alene Justice Building expansion.

“I think we need to use that to stabilize our (sheriff’s office) workforce and stabilize public safety here in Kootenai County,” he said.

Norris said that about 80% of the jail’s inmates are facing a felony charge, while the other 20% are facing a misdemeanor.

Hutchison said jail staff has an average of two-and-a-half years on the job. Norris said such a short length of experience, compared with increasingly serious offenders filling cells, worried him.

“If we were dealing with a 20% felony jail I wouldn’t be so concerned with this, but that’s just not the case anymore,” Norris said of the inexperienced staff.

There are 22 vacant positions in the jail and 15 employees are in training, according to a packet handed out by the sheriff’s office Thursday. Norris said there will soon be 25 vacancies.

He said his jail staff is starting to see more violent inmates as well, using Jesse Spitzer as an example.

Spitzer is facing several serious charges after authorities arrested him in late January in northwestern Montana.

Spitzer used a metal leg from his cell desk to break out of his cell in early April at the Kootenai County Jail, Hutchison said. He showed a video at Thursday’s meeting of Spitzer leaving the cell he broke out of, trying to pry open a door to the recreation yard and beating on a plexiglass window, which largely held up against the bashing.

Spitzer eventually surrendered after sting ball grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas were used against him, according to a sheriff’s office news release. One deputy sustained minor injuries and several uninvolved inmates were affected by the tear gas. All were treated by jail medical staff.

While Spitzer did not make it outside the walls of the jail, Hutchison called the jailbreak attempt the most successful one in his 16 years.

The patrol division is starting to feel the “squeeze” as well, Norris said.

Seven positions are vacant and eight deputies are in training, according to the packet. Norris attributed the staff shortage to significantly higher wages in Washington and other states in the region.

Fillios said detention and dispatch deputies have received several pay increases over the last 18 months, in the form of stipends and other compensation outside of their salaries. He said wages are competitive with other jurisdictions, and will continue to be, as commissioners are considering large wage increases for all county employees for the 2023 fiscal year.

Filios said internal research identifies four main reasons officers leave detention: retirement, personal reasons, wages and career change.

“So we county commissioners only control one quarter of that, which is the wages,” Fillios said. “And at this point, what would we have to pay to attract and retain? Would we actually have to pay more than Spokane, and is that a reasonable approach? And then what happens to the other 700 plus employees? What about them?”

The shortages mean deputies are working more while responding to a rise in calls for service.

Deputies responded to 24,722 calls for service through May, compared to 22,330 during the first five months of 2021, according to the packet.

The stress of working so much overtime has driven some deputies to lower-paying jobs that don’t demand as many hours, Norris said.

Meanwhile, what the sheriff’s office identifies as “violent crime” calls were up from 93 in 2017 to 165 in 2021, “psychological” calls increased from 57 in 2015 to 126 last year and drug calls escalated from 1,126 in 2015 to 1,318 in 2021, according to the packet.

“There is a significant drug problem here in Kootenai County,” said Norris, adding that fentanyl-related deaths are about two and a half times what they were last year.

Staff writer Nick Gibson contributed to this report.

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