As of Monday, Canyon County will stop trying to sell the land north of Caldwell it bought as a future jail site in 2007. And it will move quickly to take security measures at the canvas-sided “tent jail” that was the launch pad for eight inmates’ escapes in the past 13 months.
With a new member and a new chairman, the three-member county Board of Commissioners made the two jail issues among its first orders of 2017 business.
Both measures were approved by new Chairman Tom Dale and newly sworn-in Commissioner Pam White. Both were opposed by former chair Steve Rule, who with Craig Hanson pushed for the past year to convert the tent jail back to its original work-release purpose. Rule and Hanson — the latter lost re-election last year — also unsuccessfully advocated for expanding the current jail adjacent to the courthouse rather than keep trying to get public support for a bigger, more expensive jail on county-owned land off U.S. 20-26 at Pond Lane.
That land, which the county bought in two parcels for about $2 million, has been for sale at $1.3 million for about two years. It has failed to get any offers. Dale and White voted Monday to take the property off the market and keep it on hand to fulfill the purpose that prompted the county to buy it.
Rule cast the dissenting vote, saying ”we should keep our options open” in case a buyer comes along to develop the site for the commerical purposes. The land boasts city services and easy freeway access.
”That land has has been held by the county way too long,” Rule said. “Three jail bonds have failed, and I don’t think a fourth would do any better.”
Dale said he believes the public is more convinced than in the past that a new jail is needed. And, he said, he is confident the county will find a way to get a new jail built once a solid plan is researched and presented. Past efforts to fund a new jail drew majority approval but fell short of the needed two-thirds percentage.
Even if voters approved a fourth try at a jail bond in November, Dale and other county officials say they would need the tent jail, officially known as Pod 5, for at least another two years. And all agree the structure as it stands is woefully inadequate to its current purpose of housing minimum-security inmates. Eight inmates have escaped Pod 5 in six incidents since December 2015.
The most recent escapee and two who broke out in October went over a partial wall into the pod jail’s kitchen, where they forced their way through an exterior door. That door has now been replaced, and Sheriff Kieran Donahue told commissioners Monday the top priority for beefing up security will be to put an “expanded metal lid” over the kitchen. Expanded metal is similar to chain-link but with much smaller openings, Facilities Director Paul Navarro said.
That project would cost less than $5,000 and take only a couple of weeks to do, with county employees providing the labor, Navarro said.
The other recommended security improvements — putting a chain-link lid over the outdoor recreation area, putting a hard coating on the canvas walls and fencing the pod jail’s entire perimeter — would be more costly and, in the case of the exterior fence, require waiting until spring, he said. Each of those measures would presumably have prevented at least one of the past year’s escapes, officials said.
Navarro told commissioners he would come back to them Tuesday morning with more answers about the path forward.
Talking to the Statesman after the meeting, the facilities director estimated the total cost of all the envisioned improvements as somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000, including architect and engineering fees. The money could come from proceeds from the recent sale of the county’s Nampa court annex, which brought in about $300,000, he said.
Rule said the county shouldn’t spend any money on security improvements until it has assurance the city of Caldwell would approve the process. At Rule and Hanson’s request, the Caldwell City Council voted last month to no longer let the county use the tent jail for minimum-security inmates. But council members indicated they would reverse that vote if the county came up with an adequate plan for improved security within 60 days.
“I still think it’s a work-release center, and we’re trying to put Band-Aids on it again,” Rule said. The structure was built in 2005 for work-release inmates but converted to a minimum-security jail five years later because of chronic jail crowding and lawsuits over jail conditions.
Donahue and his command staff say returning it to just work-release would be remarkably expensive. There isn’t sufficient room in the main jail for those in the tent, so they’d have to be held in other counties and transported back and forth for court appearances.
Donahue has estimated the cost at about $1 million a year, but Rule called those estimates misleading and “embellished.” Donahue denied that, saying although Pod 5 currently has about 30 inmates, it was averaging about 90 this fall.
The sheriff and his command staff repeatedly mentioned Monday that they had requested authorization to beef up security at the tent jail last summer and fall, to no avail. Those comments appeared to rile Rule, who with Hanson had rejected the security improvements in favor of the work-release designation.
“I’m tired of hearing the board didn’t take action,” Rule said. “We gave direction but it wasn’t what you wanted to hear. ... We took action and they chose not to follow it. I’m not going to take much more of that stuff.”
Although the jail issue has long been hotly contentious at commission meetings, the transition to a new majority Monday was largely amicable. After unanimous votes to make Dale the new chairman and White vice-chair, both praised Rule and said his decadelong experience on the board will be an invaluable resource. Rule, in turn, praised the experience and ability of the board’s new leadership.
Kristin Rodine: 208-377-6447
A spate of escapes
In the past 13 months, eight inmates have escaped from the “tent” jail in six incidents. 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.
▪ Dec. 28, 2016: Ryan Michael Tone, in custody for a probation violation on a domestic battery charge, climbed over the partial kitchen wall and broke through the kitchen’s exterior door.