With the bitter debate over whether to expand the Canyon County jail seemingly dead, the divide between factions of county government now centers on the escape-prone tent facility used to help ease jail crowding.
But the Caldwell City Council, which in October rejected two commissioners’ permit request to expand the jail near downtown, is still playing the role of arbiter.
This time Commissioners Steve Rule and Craig Hanson, whose majority on the three-member board will expire Jan. 9, are asking the council to force the county sheriff to revert the tent jail to its original purpose: housing work-release inmates.
Rule and Hanson pushed for that change after a rash of escapes — five incidents and seven escapees since Dec. 5, 2015 — from the canvas-sided, minimum-security structure, which houses an average of around 90 inmates.
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue also responded to the escapes with frustration and a call for change, agreeing that the tent facility is inadequate. But his solution, favored by Commissioner Tom Dale and Commissioner-elect Pam White, is to fortify the structure so that it can continue to serve its current purpose.
“My only recommendation is that the status quo can’t continue,” said Caldwell Planning and Zoning Director Brian Billingsley, who will present the county’s request to the City Council at a public hearing Monday night. “We can’t keep having these escapes.”
AN UNUSUAL TURNABOUT
The longtime planning director says he can’t recall ever receiving another request to tighten the conditions on a use permit. “Usually, they’re asking for leniency, not more restrictions,” he said.
Another unusual feature of the request to the City Council is that the two men pushing to revoke the tent jail’s current inmate status were prime movers in gaining that status six years ago. Hanson, then the county’s jail commander, and Rule successfully argued in 2010 for lifting the work-release restriction on the structure, stressing that the county needed additional inmate space to comply with a settlement agreement in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over jail crowding and conditions.
Minutes of the 2010 public hearing show Hanson told council members the structure would be used as a minimum-security “honors” unit based on inmate behavior, and anyone deemed a danger to society would be removed. He and Rule say the current sheriff has changed the rules for the structure, an allegation Donahue denies.
“Now that the floodgates appear to have been thrown open for the escape trend, we believe a major change is needed,” Hanson and Rule wrote in their Nov. 9 request to the City Council. “When the Board became aware of the crimes and criminal history of the individuals who were being held in the tent by Sheriff Donahue after their escapes, the board knew that action needed to be taken for the safety of the citizens of Canyon County and Caldwell.”
Donahue’s response to that statement: “It’s infuriating. ... We’re not housing any different kind of inmates there than we ever did. We haven’t changed the classification system one bit.”
The difference, he said, rests with the individuals who have been held there recently and tried to get out. Each of the seven escapees were recaptured, but discovering the structure’s vulnerabilities apparently emboldened others to try, he said. The answer, Donahue said, is to address the structure’s weaknesses.
FORTIFY OR REVERT?
Donahue and Dale advocate bolstering the tent structure’s security by putting a chain-link lid on the exercise yard, putting a “lid” over the kitchen so inmates who scale a partial wall can’t get out, and adding a buffer fence.
The sheriff says those measures, proposed before the most recent escape, would have prevented all of the past year’s escapes except one, in which an inmate cut through insulation and the canvas. Making the interior walls rigid is a great idea, he said, but it’s more expensive and is not envisioned for the first wave of improvements.
Hanson and Rule have refused to authorize the fortification expense, likely between $80,000 and $200,000.
“It’s a bad idea,” Rule said Friday.
They have directed the sheriff to find other places to house the inmates. Donahue says that would be prohibitively expensive, costing perhaps $1 million per year to contract for space and ferry the inmates back and forth for court appearances. He said he researched the feasibility and expense and got jails in Jerome, Adams County and Owyhee County to agree to rent space for a total of 50 inmates.
Donahue contends that Hanson, who lost his District 3 seat to White in the May primary, is taking “one more shot at me” and other county officials who opposed the plan to add on to the existing jail. Hanson could not be reached for comment.
Hanson and Rule have each said repeatedly that they would prefer to build a new jail, but after three bond attempts in the past decade failed to draw the required two-thirds majority, they are convinced a more modest, tax-frugal option is necessary.
Dale, who is expected to replace Rule as board chairman in January, said earlier this month that public recognition of the need for a new jail has grown, and another bond attempt could come as early as November. If approved, the new jail would take 18 months to two years to build. A bond amount has not been determined, but past estimates have hovered around $50 million.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Billingsley said one key consideration for the Caldwell City Council will be the impact on the residential neighborhood adjacent to the tent jail, both in terms of safety and the desirability of living next to a fortified complex. He noted he was surprised that a neighborhood meeting the county held Dec. 6 at the city’s recommendation drew no neighbors or comments about the proposed permit change.
Rule, too, said he has heard little from local residents, even after the most recent escapee was found hiding under a nearby house.
“We were lucky he went under the house rather than into the house,” he said. “Safety is the bottom line.”
After Monday’s public hearing, the City Council could vote immediately or schedule further consideration for Jan. 3 or 17. If they wait until Jan. 17, the new majority of county commissioners could withdraw the previous majority’s request, Billingsley said. If the council approves the request by Jan. 3, the new majority could appeal that decision, triggering a new hearing.
However the vote goes, Donahue said addressing tent jail issues will be “the first order of business” after White is sworn in to replace Hanson.
“I can guarantee you that on the 9th or 10th of January we’ll be addressing putting a lid on that recreation area” and other measures, he said.
“I have no intention of shutting that tent down.”
Kristin Rodine: 208-377-6447
If you go
Canyon County’s request to amend the special use permit for its auxiliary tent jail is scheduled for a public hearing at Monday’s Caldwell City Council meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. in the community room of the Caldwell Police Department, 110 S. 5th Ave.
Tent jail history
In the spring of 2005, Canyon County asked the Caldwell City Council to approve a special use permit to erect a canvas-sided structure for work release inmates. An occupancy permit for the structure was issued Dec. 19 of that year.
Five years later, plagued by overcrowding at the county jail and pressured by lawsuits over jail conditions, the county appealed the permit restrictions and received building permits to upgrade the facility into a minimum-security jail. The structure has continued serving that purpose for the past six years.
In the past year, seven inmates have escaped from the tent jail. All were recaptured:
▪ Dec. 5, 2015: Jose Cuevas, facing multiple grand theft charges, scaled the exterior fence.
▪ Feb. 1, 2016: Jose Coronado, an inmate with multiple misdemeanor domestic violence charges, cut through 18 inches of insulation with a jail-issued plastic razor. He was later recaptured.
▪ Aug. 2, 2016: Burglary and concealed weapon violation suspect Abel Garcia climbed over the exterior fence and jumped into a waiting vehicle.
▪ Oct. 1, 2016: Jeffery Duval and Juan Cervantes climbed a partial wall into the kitchen, then broke through an emergency fire door. Duval was in jail on charges of attempted strangulation and domestic battery with traumatic injury, and Cervantes had misdemeanor drug and DUI charges.
▪ Nov. 1, 2016: Brandon James and Ian Benoit climbed over the exterior fence of the exercise yard. Luna faced multiple charges including drugs and concealed weapon offenses and was found hiding under a house in the neighborhood. Benoit broke his leg in the escape and was immediately captured.