Who are the inmates that make up Idaho’s prison system?
The Canyon County sheriff is heading new efforts to help the public understand how crowded the county jail is on a daily basis, as a longstanding push to fund a new jail enters a fresh chapter.
Sheriff Kieran Donahue, with the help of the county’s IT department, launched a new page on the Sheriff’s Office website Thursday that outlines inmate population, current and historical data, and the number of Canyon inmates being housed in other counties. It also outlines the cost of housing those inmates elsewhere. Due to overcrowding, Canyon County regularly has to send inmates to neighboring county jails.
The problems at Canyon County’s jail have been a long-term battle for the Sheriff’s Office. Last summer, the facility saw three riots, and for more than a decade, Canyon has been forced to house some inmates in a tent facility, which has resulted in many escapes and escape attempts.
Donahue said he hopes the online data will be useful as the county once again tries to get voters to approve a bond for a new facility.
“I hope this will educate the lay person, not sway them,” he said at a press conference. “...This is what the needs of the county are.”
The current maximum capacity at the Canyon County jail is 477 inmates, a headcount the facility regularly approaches in Caldwell.
Canyon County Sheriff’s Capt. Daren Ward noted that the jail tries to keep capacity at about 80 percent, so that if inmates need to be separated, there is open space to do that. Additionally, only 76 beds in the jail are for female inmates.
On Thursday, Canyon County’s jail was holding 379 inmates, putting it at about 79 percent of capacity. The county was housing eight female inmates in other counties because there was no space for them.
Ward said that generally inmates are sent to Owyhee and Gem counties, but Canyon also has been forced to use Adams and Valley counties, depending on available space.
In Fiscal Year 2018, Canyon County paid $721,375 to other counties to house inmates. That does not include the cost of transportation or any medical service for the inmate. It also does not include the salaries of the deputies who were paid to transport inmates.
As of Thursday, Canyon County had already paid $121,350 to other counties for housing in FY 2019.
The Canyon County Board of Commissioners paid to have a needs assessment done for a potential new jail, which found that if a new facility is built, it should have more than twice the current capacity – 1,055 beds. The bond estimate to build a new jail is around $180 million, but a final number has not been agreed upon.
The commissioners recently hired Ysabel Bilbao, the former spokeswoman for Gov. Brad Little’s campaign, to be their outreach coordinator. She will make $3,500 per month, plus expenses, to serve as an independent consultant for the jail bond election.
Voters have failed to approve a bond three times, and the commission likely will ask for the fourth time in May.
A history of problems
The Canyon County jail has been forced in the past decade to create a variety of temporary solutions when bonds failed to fund a new facility and former commissioners sparred over solutions. Most recently, they housed some female inmates in the old county jail, known as the annex, and in 2005, the county built a tent-like structure outside the jail that was never intended to be a permanent housing solution. But it’s still in use.
The tent facility was initially meant to hold only work-release inmates. But efforts to meet the terms of court settlements with the ACLU, among other problems, expanded its use to hold some minimum-security inmates.
At least nine people have escaped the tent facility since 2015. One of the escapees ran immediately to his alleged victim’s home, one had just pleaded guilty to a felony, and several had a history of parole violations or histories of violence.
The tent facility had several security upgrades in the past year, such as hardening the interior walls and putting a lid over the outdoor recreation yard, resulting in no escapes in 2018. It is progress, but Donahue continues to stress that the tent facility was not supposed to be used this way.
The main jail is aging and has other problems. There were three riots last year and a total of 25 people were charged for rioting, authorities said.
Generally, gang members are separated into different units, but last summer the overcrowding was forcing the jail to house some rival members in the same unit.
Deputy Prosecutor Eleonora Somoza said at the Jan. 8 sentencing of Manuel Castro, who was convicted of participating in one of the riots, that the incidents created a risk to other inmates and jail staff. She noted in court that not all of the inmates caught up in the fight were career criminals and gang members.
Ultimately, Castro was sentenced to seven years indeterminate for the riot, to be served consecutively to the drug sentence he was already serving.
To see the Canyon County jail daily statistics online, visit http://apps.canyonco.org/JailStatistics/. The county will update the numbers at 5:20 a.m. every day.