Jail population decreasing, still overcrowded

On Wednesday afternoon, The Electric spent two hours touring the Cascade County Adult Detention Center to get a better view of the overcrowding situation there.

By then, the population was down to 482.

The facility was designed with for a capacity of 360, with 150 contracted for Montana State Prison inmates.

On Monday, Sheriff Bob Edwards sent a letter to other law enforcement agencies in the region and judges notifying them that the jail would temporarily not accept admissions for non-violent misdemeanor offenses or non-violent misdemeanor warrants.

Edwards limits jail admissions due to overcrowding

There’s a recreation area on the county side that can also serve as an alternative housing unit that Commander Dan O’Fallon said officials were very close to opening this week when capacity hit 531.

Even before the spike, O’Fallon said they moved 40 federal and state inmates out. Probation and Parole moved five people to Fort Benton, he said.

But the spike wasn’t caused by local arrests.

The Cascade County jail is a hub when prisoners need to be moved to other locations by air, since it’s right next to the Great Falls airport.

On one recent occasion, inmates were transferred to Cascade County in preparation for a flight, but the plane broke down.

On Saturday, inmates were again transferred to Cascade County in anticipation of a flight, but the plane didn’t fly, causing the jail to hit the 531 population and prompting Edwards’ directive on Monday.

On Wednesday, there were 201 pre-trial felons from Cascade County courts. The facility was designed to hold 90, O’Fallon said.

O’Fallon said that many people are suggesting that the county move Department of Corrections and federal inmates out to make room for locals.

But those agencies pay for Cascade County to hold their prisoners, which generates revenues needed to operate the facility, Edwards and O’Fallon said this week.

Both Edwards and O’Fallon said the jail receives $1.2 million from the county. According to county budget documents, the public safety department, which includes the jail and Cascade County Sheriff’s Office received about $5 million from property taxes during fiscal year 2018, which ended June 30. The jail’s total operating budget was about $9 million for the fiscal year. Mary Embleton, county budget officer, said there is no cap on what the sheriff’s office can request but public safety competes with other general fund needs like roads, the health department, the library, water and solid waste, among others.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the jail had 86 employees, six of which were in training, though that figure doesn’t include the detective assigned to the jail or the captain of operations or civilian staff.

The jail tour started at the jail’s control center near a guard station with a bank of monitors to the G-block where women are held and a section for higher security holds on the county side. That area is for inmates with behavior or discipline problems and in that unit, they’re locked down 23 hours a day with one hour out, but in chains, according to Commander Dan O’Fallon, jail manager.

If problems persist, they can be put on a 15/72 schedule, meaning they only get out for 15 minutes every 72 hours.

The G-block is the womens section and was designed to hold 24 but on Wednesday, held 48 women. Mattresses were on the second floor landing and the floor in the common area.

O’Fallon said that causes problems if there’s a situation that requires locking down sections of the jail because corrections staff have to put additional people into cells in order to do so.

There are curtains around the shower area for privacy.

Max security area has cages that inmates are locked in for taking showers and cages in the phone bank areas.

The contracted side holds inmates for the Montana State Prison. The county has an agreement with the state for 150 beds. That side is strictly for housing state inmates, O’Fallon said. During fiscal year 2018, which ended June 30, the county received about $3.89 million from the state for that section’s operations, according to county budget documents.

It’s been full since the building was constructed, O’Fallon said, and that the state funded the construction of that portion of the facility.

All are felony convictions and some have life sentences. Some have release dates set for 2090. Offenses range from felony bad checks to deliberate homicide.

“This is a very controlled environment,” O’Fallon said.

The Cascade County jail doesn’t have close custody or maximum security inmates. Those held in the county facility are low to medium security offenders, O’Fallon said. The Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge has a maximum security section.

An inmate could have been convicted of deliberate homicide, but be a model prisoner and be bumped to a lower security level, making them eligible for various jobs or privileges in the jail, such as kitchen duty or hobbies.

These inmates work within the jail, on janitorial, maintenance, kitchen or other duty, O’Fallon said.

They’re paid for their work based on state guidelines. That money goes to pay any restitution they owe and the rest goes into their account so they can buy things at commissary or for the inmate welfare fund. It keeps them from becoming indigent, O’Fallon said, which ends up costing the county more money.

Inmates on kitchen duty get $2 per day.

There are treatment programs at the jail, counseling, anger management and other programs mandated by the court, O’Fallon said.

The state prison side is one of the last institutions in the state to have a free weight gym. It’s a great privilege to use the gym, which is a highly protected area and if anyone violates the rules, the equipment will be gone forever and they’ll switch to isometric exercises, O’Fallon said.

On the state side, inmates are in general population areas from 6 a.m. to midnight and many start working at 10 p.m.

It’s pretty quiet on the state side since sound on the televisions or music are routed to their headphones. Some have taken them apart to fashion tattoo guns or other weapons, but if that happens, it’s taken away. And the case is clear so that corrections staff can see if they’ve been altered.

There’s a dentist office on the state side, funded by the state. A state dentist comes every other week, which has been a benefit to the jail staff, O’Fallon said, since previously they were transporting groups of inmates at a time downtown and everyone knew when and where that was happening.

“It became a real security risk,” O’Fallon said.

Everything is recorded, there are 360 video cameras in the jail and in some areas audio is also recorded.

There’s an area for fresh air recreation, surrounded by tall concrete walls and the windows are covered in bars and metal grating to prevent escape or from anything being thrown in. Early on the metal grating wasn’t there and O’Fallon said people would throw basketballs in that were filled with drugs.

Every cell is the same, a concrete block with two shelf style beds, a toilet and sink and a table with seats attached to the wall.

The cells are designed to hold two people but are currently holding three, O’Fallon said, with someone on the floor.

County side also has a recreation area, where inmates are allowed an hour per day for use if they so choose.

On Wednesday it was used to hold a block of men while their cell block was searched for a weapon and other contraband that corrections staff had gotten wind of.

At Station 3 on the county side, corrections officers were monitoring a block with 204 men in it. That’s roughly double what it should be, O’Fallon said.

There’s a separate pod where sex offenders and child molesters are held.

The kitchen provides hot lunch and dinner meals, and state inmates prep cold breakfasts each night that are stored in coolers overnight. The kitchen serves about 1,500 meals daily that provide about 3,000 calories to inmates daily. Two Aramark civilian staff supervise kitchen operations.

The cost to the county is $1.40 per meal at an estimated $800,000 annually for food.

Medical costs are another significant portion of the jail budget at an estimated $900,000 annually.

O’Fallon said he started in 1979 and some of the same families are still in jail.

“It’s the same people.”

The judicial system is backed up and O’Fallon said he thinks adding another district court judge could help address that case load.

From the time of arrest to conviction can take 14-15 months, he said.

“That’s horrific,” he said.

O’Fallon said staff goes through the list of detainees on a weekly basis to work with the County Attorney’s office to determine who can be out of jail in a supervised pre-trial program of some sort.

“We work every single day on our population,” O’Fallon said. “Everyday we’re working on solutions to try to lower this.”

The sheriff’s office is working to expand the 24/7 program but adding some of the other programs like alcohol monitoring bracelets comes with a cost, he said.

“Where’s that funding going to come from,” O’Fallon said.

Some inmates on misdemeanors are eligible to work outside as grounds crew and for every five days worked, they get three days off their sentence, so long as a judge hasn’t put restrictions on their sentence.

For every five days worked, they can get one day off their sentence if they do a job inside the building.

But all of those privileges depend on the nature of the crime and a person’s criminal history.

O’Fallon said Judge Steve Bolstad of the Great Falls Municipal Court is working very hard with them to keep numbers low. O’Fallon said jail administrators can call and explain the situation to work out ways to move people quicker.

The jail’s medical team also assists in lowering costs by keeping administrators updated on when inmates have worsening health conditions that will require transportation offsite for healthcare.

In one case, a woman was in jail awaiting trial and had a high-risk pregnancy. It was getting very expensive to manage her healthcare and when medical staff alerted O’Fallon he looked up her record. She was in on theft charge with a $750 bond. It would have been cheaper for him to bond her out himself so he called County Attorney Josh Racki to get her released until her court date.

Medical staff are available 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on call overnight. They’re called first before transporting anyone offsite unless it’s a major emergency.

They do basic medical care, evaluate those having seizures, on drugs or intoxicated and those with diabetes, high or low blood pressure and check for any contagious diseases.

Medical services were previously provided by Benefis Spectrum for 16-17 years, but the company bailed out of the corrections business over winter 2016-2017.

With short notice to switch providers, corrections staff requested proposals and received two, O’Fallon said. One was from a company out of Denver, Colo. for $1.2 million for the first year. Planned Parenthood also submitted a proposal providing the same services for $800,000 and is currently serving the jail.