Jail cells overflowing in oil boom country

Jan 2 2014 - 10:20am

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Jail cell
Jail cell

GLENDIVE, Mont. -- Sheriff Craig Anderson scans the inmate roster for the Dawson County Detention Center in Glendive and sees real problems. There's an inmate charged with murder and another for petty crime. He can't put them together, but he's four inmates over capacity, so he can't easily keep them apart.

"Do you really want to put an 18-year-old, no registration, no driver's license, in with Levi Stark? Neither has been convicted. So, we're separating there," Anderson said. Awaiting trial, Stark is accused of stabbing a man to death.

"Now you have post-conviction misdemeanor and felony. Throw in sex offenders. Then we have gangbangers and co-defendants. So we're challenged on that front as well," he said. "Ideally, you want two cells open so you can manage a population within a population, but we don't have that."

No space available

There aren't many jails in the footprint of the Bakken oil boom. And the jails that are here are full. Dawson County's jail, one of the region's largest, with 24 beds and four holding cells, was at or near capacity all but two months during 2013.

In Sidney, Mont., a community flanked by hundreds of half-frozen fifth-wheel camper trailers occupied by roughnecks, the Richland County Detention Center is filled beyond capacity. The 24-bed facility maxed out in July and began housing overflow inmates in a separate wing normally reserved for juveniles. Two days after Christmas, inmates there numbered 29. The juvenile wing was again occupied by adults.

In Williston, N.D., ground zero for the hydraulic fracking bonanza that produces a million barrels of oil a day, the 116-bed Williams County Detention Center, built five years ago, had 101 inmates Friday.

The jail, which Williams County was supposed to grow into during several decades, is most often packed. It isn't uncommon for North Dakota sheriffs to look west toward Montana for available room when things are tight. But because so many rural Montana counties lack a jail, there's usually no room at the inn for out-of-staters.

"The last time I had to arrange to ship an inmate, I had to call as far away as Lewis and Clark County," 511 miles away in Helena, Mont., said Deputy Scott Nelson. He oversees the Sheridan County Jail in Plentywood, a far northeastern Montana town within walking distance of Canada and 36 miles from North Dakota.

Sheridan County has 16 jail beds, but its cells date back to 1901 and sport the iron bars now considered a liability for suicide by hanging. The facility also lacks a recreation yard, which raises the ire of civil rights groups. Consequently, Nelson said, the county can only hold an inmate for three days before it must hunt for better accommodations.

In 2012, Custer County moved its inmates out of the county after the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana complained that Custer's basement jail in Miles City lacked sunlight and was moldy. In September, Custer County voters approved funding for a new jail.

Typically, counties sending inmates to another county are charged about $60 per inmate per day.

'Worst of the worst'

A dozen Montana counties have no jail at all, including some in the Bakken region. Many had declining populations before the oil boom, which made building new jails impractical. Jails in Sidney, Glendive and Glasgow were built to serve more than their host counties. The rising number of inmates has made it difficult to accommodate the smaller counties, but also difficult to take on inmates arrested for lesser offenses.

"We are down to holding the worst of the worst and trying to manage the available beds. I think we got three murderers right now," Anderson said. "Standard procedure for the highway patrol is if you got caught driving with a revoked license, or without any license, you go to jail. Not anymore. Not in this county. You cite and release. Here's your ticket, post your bond. Oh you don't have a bond? OK, here's your ticket."

The Dawson County Detention Center was built in 1999 and was expected to last several decades. In addition to its 24 jail beds and four holding cells, the building also houses 140 prisoners for the Montana Department of Corrections. State prisoners and local inmates are separated, but guards are trained to work both parts of the facility and the arrangement with the state pays for 85 percent of the county's jail employee costs.

Major changes

The oil boom has jolted the sleepy railroad and farm town. Four hotels have been constructed in the past few years. Rents have skyrocketed. Anderson's deputies are encountering challenges they never dreamed of, including suspects who don't speak English and may not understand their civil rights, a bad situation for police and prosecutors alike.

"One of my deputies stopped two Chinese. One had entered the country illegally. The other was legal and neither of them spoke English," Anderson said. "They happened to have a quantity of marijuana in plain view, but just getting them to understand the charges and getting them through the booking process was tough. So, we called Homeland Security. Nothing.

"The Subways had a couple of Chinese kids working for them through some sort of work exchange program. We're pretty resourceful."

The number of people jailed in Dawson County has jumped from 195 a year in 2007 to 277 through the first 11 months of 2013. But the increase in inmates tells only half the story, Anderson said. At 277, the inmate population is about as high as it could be. The number has been roughly the same two years in a row.

The number of people booked into the jail and immediately released for lack of room has skyrocketed. People who would otherwise spend the night in jail are written into the register and then turned loose. Bookings at the jail numbered 920 through the first 11 months of 2013 compared to 602 for the entire year in 2007. Depending how December finished, bookings could approach 1,000.

Expansion?

Dawson County might have to build its way out of its inmate surge, which means selling voters on a bond for a jail expansion. Anderson said that could be a tough sell in a county that has shouldered some of the Bakken burden, but hasn't seen much drilling for oil and isn't benefiting from oil and gas taxes like other counties.

There's a tendency in eastern Montana communities affected by the oil boom to cast oil field workers as a bad lot, but that isn't fair, said Glen Meier, the Valley County sheriff.

The number of inmates in eastern Montana jails is increasing according to population, he said. Sidney's population, estimated at 5,000 in the 2010 census, is now believed to be somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000. A population increase like that is going to affect jail bookings. Williston's population since 2010 is estimated to have doubled to 25,000 to 33,000. The population estimate, part of a study by North Dakota State University, concluded Williston was the nation's fastest growing micropolitan area.

Valley County's inmate population "is up about 30 percent from last year," Meier said. "We're housing for other counties, too. We're almost 90 percent full."

Meier's jail is housing eight inmates from Custer County while a new jail is being constructed in Miles City. It also holds inmates for other counties, like Sheridan, that can't hold an inmate for more than a couple days, if at all. The three-year-old jail has 24 beds and two holding cells.

In a rare occurrence, Valley County was able to pay for its jail in cash, $3.5 million, money it was able to sock away while relying on federal government surplus equipment programs. Meier is able to charge other counties for inmates -- as all regional jails do -- which has helped Valley County.

"Our estimated income for this year is $250,000 on a $3.5 million jail," Meier said. Like most eastern Montana counties that have built new jails in the past decade, Valley County did so because its old facility was antiquated.

"The biggest liability that a sheriff has in any one of these counties is his jail," Meier said. "You want to drive a sheriff crazy, give him a jail. These are huge liabilities for your county."

In Glendive, there's was no spare room at Dawson County Detention Center as December came to a close. Sheriff Anderson and Correction Facility Warden Tom Green are making tough decisions about how many inmates can safely be kept in one room. Late arrivals will have to sleep in large stackable sleeping trays that resemble a child's sled.

"What we have, they're legal, the [sleeping trays] look like a toboggan and it basically looks like a snow sled and we got mattresses that go in them," Anderson said. "They'll sleep in them like a boat on the floor, against the wall, against the door."

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