About seven years after the American Civil Liberties Union sued Canyon County over jail conditions that the ACLU called “indecent, cruel and inhumane,” the Sheriff’s Office announced Monday it is no longer bound to federal court oversight.
“It’s a big day for us. It’s a huge day for this county,” Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue said at a morning news conference. “This has been a long journey. And we’re incredibly proud to reach this milestone.”
The ACLU initially sued the county in 2009 amid complaints of chronic overcrowding and unhealthy conditions. In 2011 the ACLU filed another lawsuit, this time targeting then-Sheriff Chris Smith and his chief deputy on behalf of inmates who alleged jail officers retaliated against them for complaining about poor conditions.
The county settled both those cases through a “consent decree” that placed numerous conditions on the jail, including a cap of 477 inmates at any particular time. Last year, Donahue told the Statesman the jail building still needed costly ventilation and plumbing upgrades before the county could get out from under the decree.
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After years of the county implementing new policies and programs, the groups reached a point where they could end the need for court oversight. The ACLU “agreed that we have met the conditions that they went to federal court on, and ... we’re moving forward,” said Donahue, who was elected as sheriff in 2012 and is running for re-election this year.
Stephen Pevar was the ACLU’s lead counsel on the case. Speaking by phone Monday afternoon, he said the lawsuit ended up being a win-win situation since it pushed the county to improve its facility.
“They’ve come a long way. If you compare the complaint in the case, which showed there were dozens of people sleeping on the floors, it was just a pit. Mold was everywhere, the sanitation was unhealthy, plumbing was terrible,” Pevar said. “They did a good job.”
Ending court oversight won’t change much day-to-day at the jail, said Capt. Daren Ward, jail commander.
He promised the county will continue to meet almost all of the requirements set out in the consent decree, such as filing a dense weekly report, following updated training standards and maintaining the ventilation. The only change: Deputies will no longer to be required to test shower water temperatures at least three times a day. After work with the maintenance staff and years of testing the temperature daily, Ward said they have established that the water temperature is well-managed.
THE JAIL’S FUTURE
Another lawsuit alleging malfeasance by jail staff has been settled, according to federal court records. In 2015, the estate of Alfred “Jeri” Young sued the county and several jail employees claiming workers ignored Young’s requests for medical care during a jail stay the previous year. Young was later found unresponsive in a holding cell and taken to a Caldwell hospital, where he died. Young, a Canyon County resident who had been working through drug court, was also one of the plaintiffs the ACLU represented in the 2011 lawsuit.
Attorneys for both sides agreed on a settlement for the 2015 lawsuit on March 28, although it has not yet been formally dismissed.
One of Donahue’s challengers in Tuesday’s Republican primary, Parma Police Chief Albert Erickson, focused on that most recent suit in a response to the news about ending the court oversight. “Clearly, the situation has not improved enough under Donahue’s leadership,” Erickson said in a Monday news release.
The sheriff and a majority of county commissioners still disagree on a permanent solution for the jail’s problems: expanding the current facility, or building a new one.
Commissioners Craig Hanson, a former commander at the jail, and Steve Rule advocate expanding the jail as the more affordable and feasible option, noting that Canyon County taxpayers have rejected bond elections to build a new jail three times. They’ve moved forward with design plans.
In an email, Donahue’s other challenger, Tony Thompson said the county ought to take its time, but agrees a new jail should be in the works.
“Do we need a new jail? Yes, but not at this time,” he said in the email. “Building a new jail will require more thought on the right layout, location, how to pay for it as well as the staff to run it. I would like to see space for a bigger alternative sentencing programs and work details along with mental health and drug and alcohol programing.”
The ACLU’s Pevar believes the county will have a difficult time keeping standards up if it only expands on the current building, built in 1948.
“They’re going to have to keep at it,” he said. “It’s an old facility with a lot of problems.”
Donahue agrees, long insisting that the best way to proceed, while maintaining healthy standards for the jail, would be to build a new jail. Though a new jail would have steeper upfront costs, between $30 million and $40 million, he argues it would be more cost-effective in the long run than building an extension to the jail, with estimated upfront costs of around $13.5 million.
Advocates say the expansion could be paid for through existing fund balances, but Donahue argues that the ancillary costs would hike the price tag in the short- and long-run. And he says building a new jail could save the county up to about $20 million in costs like sewer hookup and additional staffing.
“It’s still the same decrepit building,” Donahue said. “We’ve managed to make diamonds out of this rough piece of coal, if you will. But it is not sustainable forever.”
If the county went forward with a new jail, the county may not need to add more than five additional staff members, he said, but that number would jump up to about 45 additional hires with a jail extension.
“Things have changed. So, let’s plan for that future. We have some money. I think we need to continue to save our money as county taxpayers,” he said. “I think we need to continue to put that money into a capital investment fund for the future.”
Donahue added that a new jail would enable the county to expand their alternative sentencing programs. So far the county oversees about 1,200 people under such programs, but Donahue said that number could go up to 2,000 with a new jail.
“The people need a new jail,” he said. “Public safety needs a new jail.”