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County to spend $500K to clean, renovate jail

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Lake County Commissioners unanimously voted last Monday to spend an estimated $500,000 to clean and renovate the county’s detention facility, located in the courthouse basement.

Commissioner Steve Stanley, who has taken the lead in the remodeling effort, told commissioners and sheriff department staff that the project will include replacing doors and windows, revamping shower areas, improving lighting, enhancing handicap accessibility and upgrading the intercom system. In addition, the entire facility will be cleaned and painted.

The cleaning portion is underway now, with major remodeling expected to begin in March by a Spokane firm, Corrections Technology Group. Some grant money from the federal CARES Act is available to help cover costs. 

“It’s going to be a challenge to operate the facility and do what we need to do,” said Stanley. “But at the end of the day, it’ll sure be a lot cleaner and offer a much safer environment for staff.”

Detention Commander Joel Shearer noted that juggling prisoners during the renovation could be challenging. The jailer has recently been trying to find space for seven Department of Corrections inmates, with no luck. “Nobody has much space right now,” he said. 

During the renovation, he hopes to find temporary housing for at least a dozen prisoners. 

The jail was last remodeled in the 1990s after the ACLU and the family of an inmate who was murdered in the facility sued the county over safety issues. It now houses up to 48 inmates, but has been operating at or over capacity, with 50 inmates on the roster last Monday. 

Overcrowding was a major concern in 2020 when the commissioners asked voters to approve a levy for a $50 million detention facility that would have housed up to 100 inmates. Voters turned down the request by a nearly two to one margin.

While this far more modest effort won’t address overcrowding, it will improve jail safety and atmosphere, said Stanley. Bars on cells will be replaced with detention-grade plexiglass and steel doors, creating a more spacious feel while also allowing prison staff to keep a closer eye on their charges. It also enhances their ability to confine troublemakers to their bunk areas instead of allowing constant access to the dayrooms.

The commissioners and sheriff’s staff agree that the jail is housing more dangerous prisoners than in years past. The county consistently ranks among the highest in Montana for per-capita violent crimes and drug offenses. 

 “It’s a much different crowd than when I was sheriff,” said Commissioner Bill Barron, who has served as sheriff in Lake and Glacier counties. ”You might have had one pod where half of them were real bad asses and the other half were headed that way. Now the whole facility is high-risk bad asses.”

“It’s long overdue,” said Commissioner Gale Decker. “Improvements need to be there for the inmates, but the improvements also need to be there for the staff.”

“Just the idea of change is exciting,” Shearer said. “Bringing in natural light and cleaning – that in itself goes a long way.” 

He added that measures to improve security will also boost staff morale. Prisoners “push it to the limit all the time,” he said. “Being able to lock them down would be a huge benefit.”

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