Bringing up the topic of the Canyon County Jail yields myriad responses, none of them positive.
County commissioners have been struggling for more than a decade to find a way to remedy overcrowding and poor conditions.
The sheriff and jail staff deal with the aging, poorly designed building every day, adding more stress to an already difficult job.
The public has not once, not twice, but three times voted down bond proposals to pay for a new jail.
Inmates must contend with crowding, and poor ventilation and sanitation, as well as alleged retaliation from jail staff for lodging complaints about the conditions. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed two lawsuits on behalf of inmates, winning both cases.
No one disputes something needs to be done. But the latest search for a viable solution has deeply divided the commissioners and the sheriff. Each side has come up with a plan that can be done without a bond by paying cash, but the commission’s plan for an addition to the existing jail could start construction this year, while the sheriff’s plan for a new jail would take a few years. The commission is forging ahead with its plan with or without the sheriff.
But at least one stakeholder says he does not have enough information on either plan to decide which is better.
“Ultimately, the decisions the county makes today will impact future generations down the road. I just want to make sure that the right decision is made for the right reasons,” said Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Taylor.
The need for more jail space has been dogging Canyon County for at least 15 years. A 2009 federal court order put tight reins on the jail — it cannot exceed 477 inmates at any time and it must comply with numerous conditions.
The county knows it needs more jail space, but Canyon County Commissioner Craig Hanson said taxpayers have made their message loud and clear: no jail bond.
Though the last two bond elections took place during the recession, Hanson does not think an improved economy and increased awareness of jail problems have improved the chances of a bond passing, and holding another bond election “would be a wasted effort.”
“People are sick and tired of being taxed,” he said.
Hanson says the county can pay cash now to build a $13.5 million, 60,000-square-foot, 300-bed addition to the existing jail.
With the new addition, the 34-bed old jail, built in 1948, would be taken out of service and likely used for storage, and a 35-bed unit in the jail annex, built in 1991, would be converted to a medical unit, giving the jail a net gain of 231 beds, a 48 percent increase.
Hanson and fellow Commissioner Steve Rule are moving forward with this plan. Earlier this month they selected a firm to design and build the addition. A preliminary timeline calls for construction to start this summer and to be completed within 18 months.
New Commissioner Tom Dale, who took office in January, does not support the plan, but with a three-member commission, he is the odd man out.
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue has come out in strong opposition to the plan, calling it a “Band-Aid on a flowing artery.”
The sheriff is wrong, Hanson said.
Hanson, who took office in January 2013, has 20 years of law enforcement experience, including running the Canyon County Jail from October 2008 through October 2010.
“I ran the jail. I know how the jail runs,” Hanson said. “I have more jail experience than Sheriff Donahue. I am using that wisdom, not arrogance, to say this can work.”
“Is this a plan that is going to fix everything? No. It is not. Is this the perfect fix? No. If we had $60 million, I would say yes, let’s go build a new facility. I would implode everything we currently have and start from scratch. But I can’t do that.”
Hanson says his plan is “a 15- to 20-year fix.” A temporary minimum-security tent structure the county is now using to house some inmates has about 10 years left on its warranty; depending on growth and crime trends, the jail addition could be outgrown within a couple of decades.
“We want to do the best we can with the dollars we have available and treat our taxpayers properly. We are not designing something just to say we did something,” Hanson said. “If at a point in time it comes up that this is not going to work, I will be the first to say that.”
Jail conditions were “indecent, cruel and inhumane,” the ACLU said in 2009.
“Yearly inspection reports issued by the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association detail the substandard, filthy, and unhealthy conditions of confinement in the Dale G. Haile Detention Center. The root cause of these deplorable conditions is overcrowding,” the ACLU wrote in its complaint.
Donahue was an undercover officer with the Sheriff’s Office at the time.
“It was chaotic. It was dangerous. It was inappropriate. We were wrong. That is the bottom line. Let’s not be wrong again. Let’s learn a lesson and move on. The taxpayers deserve that,” said Donahue.
Expanding the existing jail is not learning a lesson, and it is not moving on, Donahue said, calling Hanson’s plan a short-term solution to a problem in dire need of a long-term solution.
The ACLU’s lawsuit came while Hanson was running the jail, Donahue notes.
“We have been through five years of federal consent decree since then,” he said, referring to the lengthy list of items the court ordered the county jail to resolve. All but five have been fixed, but the county cannot get out from under the federal decree because the current building still needs costly ventilation and plumbing upgrades.
“This building continues to deteriorate. We are playing with a ticking time bomb,” Donahue said. “Building a new jail is the only solution.”
Donahue says the county can pay cash for a 600-800-bed new jail, at a cost of $30 million to $40 million. Just not this year.
The county already has $13.5 million set aside for the jail. It owns 26 acres designated for a new jail. A high-capacity sewer system was recently installed near the site, a needed jail amenity for which the county will not have to pay, Donahue said.
“We should ... designate $3 million to $5 million per year over the next few years as a capital investment fund to build a new jail on the land we purchased for that very reason,” he said. “Even if we have to build as we go or as the money becomes available, we would still be further ahead in the long run.”
Commissioner Dale agrees. Building an addition to the existing jail is “one and done,” Dale explained. The money is spent. The coffer is empty. But some of the problems remain.
“You are still working with the old jail. It is poorly designed. It would be very difficult to remodel,” he said. “You would still have a cobbled-together, piecemeal facility. I believe any plan that does not result in discontinuing to use the old jail is short-sighted.”
NOT ALL BEDS ARE EQUAL
On any given day, the jail can have empty beds but still not have enough room for all of its inmates.
The jail has 62 beds available for female inmates, and on April 9, it had 64 female inmates. The facility had some empty beds in male-only areas.
The same scenario frequently plays out with maximum security, disciplinary and special needs units.
Single- and double-bed cells are at a premium. Every day, classification officers pore over the jail roster monitoring incoming and outgoing inmates, status changes and other details to make sure inmates are where they need to be and not a threat to other inmates or themselves.
“They are constantly juggling and moving people around,” said Capt. Daren Ward, Canyon County jail commander.
Sometimes certain inmates cannot be housed together — for example, rival gang members or co-defendants in a case. Inmates jailed on homicide or sexual offenses or predatory inmates must be isolated.
“The juggling act cannot be understated. It is a constant battle,” said Lt. Andrew Kiehl, who oversees inmate control and classification.
To keep under the inmate population cap, the jail sometimes must release inmates early or transfer inmates to nearby county jails with available space. Depending on the county, the daily rate to house an inmate ranges from $45 to $72. The average cost to house an inmate in the Canyon jail is $64, Ward said.
The new addition calls for about 300 beds, but the type of beds is crucial.
Hanson said the new addition would include single and double cells, along with general population beds, but the exact number and configuration details have not been worked out.
“Once we start really looking at design, it will be a point of discussion,” he said.
ACLU SUES THE COUNTY
The county built the old jail, which is still in use, in 1948. In 1993, the county opened the Dale G. Haile Detention Center adjacent to the old jail. By 2001, the jail was exceeding its 460-bed capacity.
“Our highest number was 710 when I was running it,” Hanson said.
To handle the inmate influx, the county added triple bunks in some areas, plus mattresses on the floor, both measures that violate Idaho jail standards. In addition to overcrowding, the jail suffered from inadequate ventilation, temperature control, fire protection, plumbing, sanitation and medical care, according to ACLU’s complaint filed in 2009.
The county had been struggling with jail crowding and conditions for several years and knew the ACLU lawsuit was coming.
In an effort to fix the problem, the county commissioners hired a consultant to draw up plans for a new 652-bed, $42.5 million jail to be built on 26 acres the county owns north of Caldwell along U.S. 20-26. The county held a bond election in November 2009; it failed. A few days later a judge issued an order that put a cap on the maximum number of inmates that can be housed at the jail and identified more than a dozen areas in which the county must come into compliance
Jail staff now keep careful records of laundry procedures, water temperature and other items to ensure it stays in compliance. It also keeps track of inmate numbers.
“There has not been a day since we have been under the consent decree that we have been over our target population,” Ward said.
The addition would remedy some of these issues, such as new laundry and medical facilities, but not remove the consent decree. In fact, the decree would apply to the new addition because it would be part of the current jail.
“The moment you open the door (to the new addition), you are under a federal lawsuit. That makes absolutely no sense,” said Donahue. “Why would anyone want to put the county taxpayers under that liability?”
ACLU legal director Ritchie Eppink agrees. “The easiest way to build a more humane and appropriate facility is to start from scratch,” he said.
The addition would lessen or alleviate some of the liability, Hanson explained.
“It will give more jail space and it will give more space to classify and house inmates properly. It will address medical and laundry. The addition will pull pressure off the old building,” he said.
ACLU SUES THE COUNTY AGAIN
In November 2011, the ACLU filed another complaint, alleging that jail staff were retaliating against inmates who filed complaints about jail conditions or kept in contact with the ACLU.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of inmates Alfred Young and Lorraine Scott, and any other inmates who complained about jail conditions and “were retaliated against until they stopped,” including being placed in solitary confinement, transferred to an out-of-county jail or losing their prison worker job, according to court documents.
Young, Scott and the other inmates did not seek monetary damages in the lawsuit; they wanted the county to stop retaliating against them.
The county settled the case in June 2012, agreeing to: implement a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of retaliation by jail officers against prisoners; immediately conduct retaliation and discrimination training for all officers and require new officers to receive the training; adhere to an inmate grievance procedure; and allow the Canyon County Prosecutor’s Office to conduct a more thorough investigation into the grievance and retaliation allegations and disputes.
Both Hanson and Donahue agree that there has been a silver lining in the ACLU lawsuit: It has forced the county to implement alternative sentencing programs to reduce jail population.
In December, the county launched a new program giving judges the option of sentencing some misdemeanor offenders to community service rather than jail time.
About 1,000 people are serving their sentence out of custody through alternative sentencing programs, Donahue said.
Alternative sentencing saves taxpayers money — fewer inmates to house, feed and care for — and it keeps people out of jail, which solves other problems.
“You stay at your job, you stay with your family, but you still pay your debt to society,” Hanson said.
WHAT TO DO?
Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney Taylor said he does not want to speculate on which jail plan is better at this point because he needs more information.
“I think we need to establish what exactly it is that we need, how much of what it is that we need that we can get for the money we have, and how much it will cost to maintain and operate moving forward,” he said. “If we can get everything we need for $13.5 million, I’ll be for it; if we can get a quarter of what we need for $13.5 million, I’ll be against it. If we can get between half and three-quarters of what we need for $13.5 million, I’ll want to compare it against the costs and benefits associated with establishing a jail construction fund and saving dedicated funds for a few years.”
Dale and Donahue also think county officials and the public need more information.
Both say the county has not done structural, functionality or safety analyses of the current jail, a long-term jail needs assessment, or a study on the cost effectiveness of adding on to the existing jail versus building a new jail.
Dale would like the county to do this research and then go to the public with at least two proposals. He and Donahue both criticized the county for shutting out the public by not holding any hearings or informational meetings.
If the county were seeking a bond to build a new jail, it would have to hold public hearings to justify the project and get it on the ballot, where it needs 66 percent voter approval, Donahue explained. To spend $13.5 million to build the jail addition, all the county needs is the vote of two commissioners.
Donahue held a town hall meeting this month to explain his opposition to the commission’s plan and promote his plan.
“We believe the taxpayer has a right to know,” Donahue said.
Hanson says the county is keeping taxpayers informed. The commissioners meet almost daily in open session; all action items are posted on their daily agendas. “Everything that we have made a decision on, the public has had access to come in,” he said.
“I have not had anybody other than those that are aligned with the sheriff tell me this is a bad plan. ... This is the only plan. There are no other plans presented. If Commissioner Dale or Sheriff Donahue has a plan, I would like to see it.”